I’ve covered the state budget process long enough to know that budget surpluses are better than budget deficits, so November tax collections of $435.6 million, $88.03 million above projections, is good news.
However, it is not evidence of “the greatest comeback story in history,” nor proof that Gov. Jim Justice has fulfilled his campaign promise to take the state on an economic rocket ship ride, as Justice’s public relations machinery hyped it.
Despite Justice’s effort to take full credit for the surplus, there are many underlying factors contributing to the strong revenue numbers: Billions upon billions of federal pandemic stimulus dollars pumped into the state economy in the past year (as tracked by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy), a spike in natural gas prices (that, at press time, was showing signs of abating) and even the fact that the month of October ended on a Sunday, pushing taxes due on the last day of the month into November’s coffers.
Of course, Justice can say this stuff, counting on a majority of West Virginians being disengaged (I bet state budget stories are some of the least-read copy I’ve produced over the years) or simply not thinking about the issues deeply.
A recent Morning Consult poll showing Justice with a 65% job approval rating among state voters is evidence both factors are in play.
Justice is hardly the first governor to personally take credit for a good month of tax collections, but his hype machine didn’t stop there.
The press release touting the November revenue report went on to claim, “The governor has also led West Virginia through a once-in-a-century pandemic, protecting the state’s most vulnerable citizens, and achieving some of the best numbers and lowest fatality rates of any state in the nation.”
That’s a flat-out falsehood.
According to data tabulated by the New York Times, as of Thursday, West Virginia has the fifth highest COVID-19 death rate in the U.S.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, West Virginia’s death rate steadily has climbed as the year has gone on, going from 76 per 100,000 people on Jan. 1 to 156 on June 1 to 173 on Sept. 1 to 270 on Nov. 30.
All in a year when highly effective COVID-19 vaccines were readily available statewide.
Meanwhile, the state is closing in on two grim milestones: 5,000 COVID-19 deaths and 3,500 deaths of unvaccinated West Virginians since vaccines became readily available.
Justice’s thrice-weekly message of “You must get vaccinated — unless you feel like it’s your ‘right’ to not get your shots” has been an abject failure.
(Notably, Justice’s calls last week for people to get vaccinated or get their booster shots omitted the “but ‘Murica” exception.)
At least some of the deaths among the unvaccinated could have been prevented had Justice been willing to take action beyond begging and pleading with the vaccine-hesitant and the anti-vaxxers.
To his credit, Justice did not follow the lead of some of his Republican gubernatorial brethren who have actively discouraged vaccinations and public health measures during the pandemic.
However, for Justice to claim he led the state safely through the pandemic and has saved lives is not just hyperbole, it’s delusional.
Speaking of, while we still continue to hear nary a peep out of Republicans regarding Justice’s throwing around tens of millions of taxpayer dollars for vaccine incentive sweepstakes that have been hugely ineffective, the same is not true in neighboring Ohio.
Republican gubernatorial candidate Jim Renacci is taking Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine to task for DeWine’s launch of a second vaccination sweepstakes, geared to the 5-to-25 age group. The state is giving away 150 $10,000 college scholarships and five $100,000 scholarships.
(Evidently, DeWine thinks young Ohioans will be motivated by the opportunity to go to college, while Justice believes young West Virginians are hankering for lifetime hunting and fishing licenses.)
Renacci is calling on DeWine to stop using taxpayer dollars for wasteful and ineffective vaccination incentive lotteries, calling them “dirty DeWine gimmicks.”
“Vaccines for children or adults should not be a lottery gimmick. They do not work and are a waste of taxpayer dollars,” Renacci said. “The decision to get a vaccination should be between the individual, their parent and their healthcare provider.”
Renacci has ammunition to support his assertion that vaccination incentive sweepstakes don’t work: A study by University of Colorado-Denver professor Andrew Friedson, in conjunction with colleagues at Bentley and San Diego State universities and the University of Oregon.
Friedson and company analyzed 19 state vaccination incentive sweepstakes, including Ohio’s original “Vax-a-Million” and the multiple incarnations of West Virginia’s “Do It For Babydog” sweepstakes. Their conclusion: “Zero difference” in vaccination rates in states with incentive lotteries and in states without lotteries or sweepstakes.
The impact of vaccination incentive sweepstakes on vaccination rates were “very small in magnitude and statistically indistinguishable from zero,” according to the study, published in the JAMA Health Forum.
As we’ve noted here, West Virginia vaccination rates actually declined during the first two Babydog sweepstakes.
I was disappointed to see that the state Ethics Commission last week canceled what would have been my last commission meeting as a reporter.
(A combination of a pandemic slowdown and 30-plus years of precedential advisory opinions that commission staff can use as guidance has resulted in the occasional month when the commission lacks a full agenda.)
I’ve covered the Ethics Commission for the entirety of its existence from its creation during the January 1989 special session, when new Gov. Gaston Caperton addressed a number of deficiencies left for him by Arch A. Moore Jr., including a distinct lack of ethics in state government.
I was still a few months removed from getting assigned to the statehouse beat when the commission held its first meeting that August, but was sent to cover the meeting, given the location of commission headquarters near downtown.
(The decision was made to locate the offices away from the Capitol complex to symbolize the commission’s independence.)
Unlike the present day, in the early days of the commission, each and every request for an ethics advisory opinion had to be addressed anew, resulting in jam-packed agendas that regularly required that the commission start meetings in the morning, break for lunch and continue working through the afternoon.
The Ethics Commission is one of the more under-covered state agencies.
Generally, other media show up only on rare occasions, such as for Justice’s short-lived attempt to place his assets into blind trusts, or when the commission occasionally acts as an adjudicatory panel to hear charges of ethics violations against public officials.
Granted, the Ethics Commission is a flawed entity. It rarely turns its focus to the Legislature or the governor’s office, since past attempts to do so have resulted in retaliatory budget cuts or legislation rolling back the commission’s powers.
However, it serves important functions in providing guidance to public officials and employees on matters of ethics, and in making financial disclosures available to the public, in the form of financial disclosure statements by elected officials and candidates, and lobbyists’ spending disclosures.
Having an Ethics Commission, and providing news coverage of that Ethics Commission, clearly is preferable to not having an Ethics Commission.
Finally, after he got eased out of his role as Justice’s communications director, I hadn’t seen Butch Antolini around the Capitol complex in ages, so it was good to remake his acquaintance last week in his new role as interim executive director of West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
However, his announcement that “The Legislature Today” will return for the 2022 regular session in the form of two minute updates Monday through Thursday, with a half-hour program on Fridays, will not reassure anyone concerned that Justice intends to yield influence over programming with his stacking of the Educational Broadcasting Authority, WVPB’s governing board.
Some bills have bill titles so long they would require two minutes to read, let alone analyze.
I’m afraid the two-minute segments will go something like this:
“Good evening. Today in the Legislature, the House introduced xx bills, and the Senate introduced xx bills. On the floor, the House passed and sent to the Senate xx bills, adopted amendments to xx bills, and advanced xx bills to second reading. The Senate passed and sent to the House xx bills, adopted amendments to xx bills, and advanced xx bills to second reading.
“Also today, Gov. Jim Justice applauded the Legislature for taking up bills on his legislative agenda, and urged quick passage of what he called the greatest legislative proposals ever in the history of the state.
“Join us tomorrow at 6:58 p.m. for another edition of ‘The Legislature Today.’ Goodnight.”
Giving Butch the benefit of the doubt, let’s hope severe WVPB staffing shortages, including a statehouse reporter vacancy, are the reason for the highly abbreviated editions of the program in the upcoming session.
I haven’t watched local TV news in ages, but unless it has improved tremendously, I will assume its coverage of the Legislature is still abysmal.
“The Legislature Today” is the only television program that provides comprehensive coverage of legislative sessions, and that can’t be done in 120 seconds a day.