Rare is the news conference where Gov. Jim Justice shows up without his whiteboards.
Since he began making public appearances as a governor, Justice has kept the whiteboards by his side. As his news conferences have become more frequent amid questions about the RISE West Virginia flood recovery program, the state’s deal with China Energy and other issues, Justice has been filling the boards with a list of what he says are his accomplishments in office.
Some of them are true. Some of them are not. Some of them are statements of the governor’s position, not accomplishments.
The Gazette-Mail examined points that appeared on the boards during Justice news conferences on June 15 and June 18. The Governor’s Office was asked questions about the items below; only one topic received a response.
‘Got flood relief moving [fast]’
After receiving about $150 million in federal funds last summer, RISE West Virginia had only spent about $1.1 million, as of March 31, of its grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. This prompted the federal agency to deem RISE to be a “slow spender.”
In the wake of its stagnation, Justice appointed James Hoyer, adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard, to run RISE earlier this month, taking the reins from the Department of Commerce. Justice’s office also took over correspondence with HUD, which began expressing concern regarding the program and an operational pause put upon it by the governor.
After putting Hoyer in charge, Justice called for and received the resignation of Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher.
According to data Hoyer has provided, his oversight seems to have spurred the program after months of malaise.
So, while recent signs for RISE appear positive, the program idled for months with Justice at the helm.
‘5% across-the-board pay raise’
After teachers and other school workers went on strike across the state this year, the governor and state legislators did agree on a 5 percent pay raise for state workers. But a couple of weeks before that, in the midst of the strike, Justice called such an idea “ridiculous.”
In his Jan. 10 State of the State address, Justice asked lawmakers to approve a 1 percent raise for teachers, with further 1 percent increases in each of the next four years.
The first wave of hundreds of school employees flooded the state Capitol on Feb. 2 as part of teacher and school service personnel work stoppages in some counties. Justice said then, “I really believe steadfastly we should hold” to the five annual 1 percent pay raises.
On Feb. 21, the day before the statewide strike started, Justice signed a bill that would have granted school workers an extra 2 percent in pay next school year, and an additional 1 percent in each of the following two years.
“When’s enough enough?” Justice asked Feb. 23. “Doing more than what has already been proposed at this time, based on the numbers that I have, would be ridiculous to do.”
On Feb. 27, Justice and state union leaders emerged from negotiations and announced what they thought would be a deal to end the strike. The deal included replacing the previous pay-raise bill with a 5 percent increase for school workers and a 3 percent raise for all state employees, all effective July 1 instead of spread out over several years.
The strike continued nonetheless, until March 6, when Justice announced the Senate would back not just a 5 percent pay raise for school employees, but also for a new deal for state employees to receive a 5 percent raise.
‘Saved the Pleasants
Coal Fired Power Plant’
The Pleasants Power Station, a coal-fired power plant in Pleasants County, will close at the beginning of 2019, assuming no buyer is found — nothing from FirstEnergy, the company that owns it, suggests the plant has been “saved.”
FirstEnergy is among the companies pushing for a bailout of coal and nuclear plants from from President Donald Trump’s administration, a lifeline Justice supports. This could help Pleasants, but experts note there are numerous questions about how such a bailout would be implemented.
A FirstEnergy spokeswoman said earlier this month that she couldn’t speculate on how any federal action would affect the plant’s future.
The most recent data available from the state auditor’s office shows Justice earned more than $143,000 in 2017 for his gubernatorial work.
Brian Abraham, the governor’s general counsel, said Justice gives his salary back to the Department of Education, and that it gets his income after taxes.
According to data provided by the auditor’s office, Justice only began contributing his salary to the Department of Education in January 2018.
However, according to a memo provided by Terry Harless, chief financial officer of the state Board of Education, Justice wrote personal checks to the Department of Education, backpaying his after-tax salary until an agreement was reached with the auditor’s office to directly deposit his salary in January 2018, where the office’s data begins.
The memo states Justice has paid a total of roughly $132,000.
Abraham has said that current law does not allow Justice to simply waive his salary, and the office’s attempt to run legislation to change the law failed.
‘Don’t fly on plane unless
it’s absolutely necessary’
After explaining this line item, Justice claimed he has only flown on the state plane about five times.
‘Got coal miners back to work’
Coal mining jobs have risen in West Virginia since Justice, who made much of his fortune in coal, took office. This reflects a national trend, but the number of miners employed still isn’t near what it was in years past.
The West Virginia coal mining industry employed 11,343 people in the fourth quarter of 2016, according to U.S. labor force data. Coal jobs have continued to trend downward in the state — in 2011, West Virginia’s coal mining industry employed more than 23,000 people.
In the fourth quarter of 2017, the year Justice took office, industry jobs rose to 13,551 in West Virginia.
Experts point to the rise of cheap natural gas — a growing industry in West Virginia — as a primary reason for the coal decline that has been concentrated in Appalachia.
‘Supports medical marijuana’
Justice signed a bill establishing the state’s medical marijuana program into law in April 2017.
But earlier this year, State Treasurer John Perdue penned a letter to Justice, state officials and legislative leadership warning that his vendors would not participate in the program, which threatened the program’s financial infrastructure.
In May, Perdue offered the governor two workaround solutions to fix the fiscal aspects of the program.
Justice did not add either of those solutions to his special session call for the Legislature last month. He said he has deferred to the federal government to see whether it acts on marijuana policy.
“I hate that we keep stumbling around that, but we’re waiting on federal government and people to guide us on that,” he said at a news conference last week.
‘Bankruptcy to prosperity’
Justice recently said he took the state “from bankruptcy to prosperity in 17 months,” with state tax revenue collections exceeding projections. In May, year-to-date collection of $3.826 billion led West Virginia to a $15.5 million surplus, attributed in part to growing pipeline and construction work.
Still, a recent Pew Charitable Trusts report warns that states shouldn’t treat revenue jumps as a sign guaranteeing a prosperous economic future.
Also, in Justice’s first legislative session in office, the state faced a roughly $500 million budget deficit, requiring either tax increases or spending cuts.
After a long special session focused on the budget, Justice refused to sign the budget the Legislature passed because of the cuts contained within, letting it become law without his signature.
At the time, he said, “I can’t possibly put my name on it.”
‘Don’t need state to cook,
do laundry, make bed, clean bathrooms, drive me everywhere, party, party, party’
At both news conferences, Justice claimed he saves the state money by not living in the Governor’s Mansion. He said by not having someone cook and clean for him or drive him around, he saves the state money.
However, as reported this week, Justice has conceded that the mansion’s staff remains on the full-time payroll.
Staffing aside, the move likely saves money on food, beverages and utilities at the mansion.
‘Against school consolidation’
Justice doesn’t have direct power to decide which schools close, stay open or change their students’ grade levels. The state Board of Education can reject closures and consolidations that county boards of education propose.
Five of the current members of the nine-person state school board were appointed by Justice. Though some of the names have changed, Justice appointees have been the majority on the board for each of its votes on consolidation.
Counting just school facilities to be completely closed, the state school board has approved closing 16 schools since Justice took office, and only rejected plans to close a school once.
Those numbers don’t include five schools in Nicholas County, home of Richwood, the subject of Justice’s most public anti-consolidation statements. In his first State of the State Address in February 2017, the governor said he’s “no fan of consolidation” and that “I hope and pray that we end up with a school in Richwood.”
The Justice appointee-laden state board did deny the Nicholas County school board’s plan to close and consolidate five schools — Richwood Middle, Richwood High, Summersville Middle, Nicholas County High and the county vocational center in Craigsville — into one school near Summersville.
But the state and county school boards agreed on a plan that still “relocates” (as the Nicholas school system puts it) Summersville Middle, Nicholas County High and the vocational center to the previously planned consolidation location, while “relocating” the two Richwood schools to be attached to an elementary school in Richwood.
The state school board clearly denied Fayette County’s request to close Meadow Bridge High, while still approving the county’s request to close six other schools. The board also agreed to take high school students out of Fayetteville High and Valley High, but those schools remain open with younger students.
In November 2016, the month Justice won office, the Boone County Board of Education canceled public hearings on closing Whitesville and Van elementary schools. A couple of Boone board members said the elections of President Donald Trump and Justice, who had promised to revive the coal industry, factored into their decision to cancel the hearings.
State Board of Education President Tom Campbell said schools are still being consolidated because of fewer students, state law’s basing of state school funding primarily on enrollment and state board Policy 6200, which states that each county school district maintain and update annually a Comprehensive Educational Facilities Plan.
Campbell said the state Department of Education is looking for “wiggle room in that to try to find some flexibility for districts not to necessarily close schools,” but the department is also doing a legal analysis to ensure no changes run afoul of the landmark Recht court decision, which requires children across West Virginia to have equal access to public education.
Campbell said he thinks the board “has had a lot of research and discussion with the communities and with the local boards about the pros and cons of school closure.” He thinks Justice’s statements in support of “community schools” have had an impact in “a broad way.”
“To me it’s a dramatic shift in philosophy, and then that dramatic shift enables people to be more free, to be open with opinions,” Campbell said. “That helps open a lot of new ways to look at solving old problems, and that cannot be underestimated, in my opinion.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of people on the West Virginia Board of Education appointed by Gov. Jim Justice.