I don’t intend to waste much time or space on Delegate Joe Jeffries, R-Putnam, who is not a worthy topic for commentary, but I will say this, Jeffries is not the problem. He’s a symptom of the problem. He’s a symptom of an ongoing decline in the state of state politics.
Not too long ago, crude, vulgar, immature, intellectually incurious extremists such as Jeffries and Delegates Derrick Evans, R-Wayne, and Eric Porterfield, R-Mercer, would not have been electable to the Legislature.
Even if they survived the Republican primary, general elections once functioned as a moderating influence, making it unlikely that extremists from either party would win in November.
However, in recent election cycles, that gatekeeping effect has not worked, allowing the likes of Jeffries, Evans and Porterfield to win. The Legislature has in recent years become a cruder, more vulgar, more intolerant, less sophisticated, less enlightened institution.
(This has been developing over the past few years, as we recall the now-Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, stomping out of a House-Senate conference committee meeting a few sessions back with a parting message to House members of “F--- you.”)
I suspect the phenomenon is partially a factor of the exodus of better-educated, more progressive young people from the state, resulting in the remainder of the electorate moving further right.
The Legislature is a reflection of the voters who put the legislators in office.
(Granted, back in the day, the occasional Randy Schoonover would sneak into office, a legislator who barely graduated high school but withstood a challenge from a Harvard Law School graduate with a “he’s not one of us” campaign. However, with recent elections, our Legislature has been flooded with a whole host of Randy Schoonovers.)
Hopefully, the 2020 elections will prove to be something of an anomaly, with scores of West Virginians deluded by social media and right-wing cable news into turning out to vote for Donald Trump in the presidential election, and then down ballot voting for anyone with an “R” behind his or her name.
Perhaps, too, having Trump as the head of the party also temporarily emboldened some legislators to be more crude, vulgar, immature and intolerant than they normally would be.
As someone who has covered the Legislature for more than three decades and respects the institution, it has been painful to watch the eroding of standards of civility and decorum over the past few years.
My greatest concern is that after the 2022 election cycle, we will look back at the present day as a period of comparative enlightenment under GOP control, and that we will see relatively moderate Republicans such as Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, and Senate Judiciary Chairman Charlie Trump, R-Morgan, be removed from their leadership positions in the House and Senate, replaced by extremist ideologues.
If things don’t improve, not only will the likes of the Jeffries, Evans, Porterfield, Robert Karnes and Brandon Steele win election to the Legislature, they will most likely move up into leadership posts.
Meanwhile, while it is laudable that Hanshaw disciplined Jeffries, even in the most modest terms, it also reminds us of how reluctant Hanshaw has been to take similar disciplinary action in the past, in cases regarding racist displays outside of House chambers and homophobic comments by members. It seems that it took sexually explicit material to finally push Hanshaw over the line.
I don’t like saying I told you so, but, legislators and Gov. Jim Justice, I told you so.
Last week, CNBC put out the 2021 edition of its annual report, “America’s Top States for Business.” (Biannual in this case, as there was no 2020 report.)
So how is West Virginia faring after 6½ years of purportedly pro-business Republican control?
The state dropped from 45th in 2019 to 47th this year, ahead of only Maine, Alaska and Hawaii. (As the report notes, the latter states are perpetually hampered by extremely high costs of living given their remote locations.)
West Virginia fell from sixth to 21st in Cost of Doing Business, 33rd to 35th in Economy, 42nd to 45th in Education and 35th to 41st in Infrastructure — even though Justice’s $1.6 billion Roads to Prosperity road bond program has tied the hands of future generations by precluding bonding of any significant road building efforts for the next 30 years.
The state continues to get an “F” for Workforce, ranking 44th in 2019 and 2021.
West Virginia did improve from 21st to 15th in Cost of Living.
CNBC’s summary: “West Virginia offers low costs, but poor education and a lack of innovation leave it in a deep hole … West Virginia ranks near the bottom for Technology and Innovation, Access to Capital, Business Friendliness and Education.”
And what state ranked as the top state for business? That would be our neighbor, and my birthplace, Virginia.
Said CNBC, “A strong workforce and a solid education system propelled Virginia to its second straight win in CNBC’s state competitiveness rankings.”
“Virginia employers reap the benefits, with one of the best-educated workforces in the country — nearly 39% of workers have a bachelor’s degree or higher, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Virginia also boasts the nation’s third-highest concentration of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.”
The CNBC report also praised Virginia’s business-friendly efforts to promote inclusiveness: “This year alone, the state enacted legislation requiring all agencies to develop plans for diversity, equity and inclusion in their ranks. And in April, Virginia bucked the trend among many other Southern states with a package of laws to expand voting rights, repealing voter ID laws, and making Election Day a state holiday.
“In 2020, [Gov. Ralph] Northam signed the Virginia Values Act, expanding anti-discrimination laws to make Virginia the first state in the South to extend comprehensive protections to LGBTQ residents.”
Can we all agree that cutting business taxes and passing a series of anti-union laws has failed to make West Virginia an attractive location for business?
If Virginia is the exemplar for how to be a business friendly state, then West Virginia is doing almost everything exactly wrong.
As Virginia is investing in education, West Virginia is defunding education — including passage this session of the largest single public education defunding bill in the state’s history in the form of Hope Scholarships — and the state has been systematically defunding higher education for years.
Virginia has a highly educated, highly trained workforce. West Virginia ranks dead last in the nation in the percentage of college-educated workers and has one of the lowest levels of workforce participation in the U.S.
Virginia has taken steps to become a more welcoming, inclusive state. Businesses and their workers find this attractive. The West Virginia Legislature and Justice have gone out of their way to make it clear that if you’re not a white, conservative Christian heterosexual, your kind is not welcome here, an attitude that responsible businesses and employees find repulsive.
(Oh, and while Virginia’s income tax rates of 2% to 5.75% technically are lower than West Virginia’s 3% to 6.5% rates, the highest tax bracket kicks in at $17,001 so practically everyone in Virginia is paying the highest tax bracket.)
And it doesn’t help to cling to delusions that West Virginia is on a “rocket ship ride” and is somehow the envy of the nation.
The Legislature should spend legislative interim meetings conducting a frank and independent analysis of what’s wrong with the state’s business climate and what corrective measures can be taken.
However, our legislative leaders and certainly our governor don’t seem to want to know the truth. They can’t handle the truth.
Finally, speaking of Justice’s aversion to the truth, we caught Big Jim in an apparent fabrication last week. He had said at his July 8 COVID-19 briefing that he had driven from Fairmont to Clendenin the day before to give away luxury pickups. In fact, state King Air flight logs show he flew from Clarksburg to Charleston.
The logs also cleared up one mysterious flight from Lewisburg to Morgantown and back on the evening of June 22, one for which no official business purpose was given.
We now know that the passenger list for that flight included Justice, first lady Cathy Justice and former senior advisor Bray Cary.
Two days after that flight, members of the Senate Confirmations Committee got notice of Justice’s appointment of Cary to the West Virginia University Board of Governors.
Meanwhile, Justice on Wednesday continued to use the state plane for his shameless self-promotion, presenting vaccination incentive sweepstakes prizes in person.
The King Air flew to Clarksburg so that Justice could present a $1 million check to Timothy Jackson of Bridgeport.
Afterward, the plane flew not to Charleston, but to Lewisburg, to drop Justice off at his home, sweet home.
As noted last week, you’ve got to hand it to Big Jim for having the chutzpah to not even bother trying to pretend that he is complying with his court settlement in which he agreed to abide by the state constitutional requirement that the governor reside in Charleston.