House of Delegates Clerk Steve Harrison reads Gov. Jim Justice's State of the State letter in the House chamber on Wednesday evening. Photo by Perry Bennett / WV Legislature.

In some ways, this week really was a unique one in the West Virginia Legislature. Gov. Jim Justice called lawmakers into a special session on Monday, two days before their regular session was to begin. Then the governor caught COVID-19 and was unable to deliver his State of the State address in person. But in other ways, the start of this session was familiar, particularly in lawmakers rushing to approve big tax breaks to try to bring a big company to West Virginia.

Economic development

The difference couldn’t be more stark: Legislators were scheduled to hear advice from a university researcher, about how West Virginia could be in the vanguard of the fight against states making project-specific giveaways to lure new jobs. 

Legislators not only canceled the expert’s testimony, but used the time to rush through just the sort of package he was advising against for a multibillion-dollar company, which state officials wouldn’t even name until the package was approved. Some legislators questioned the need for speed regarding the bills, which reallocated millions of dollars in federal pandemic relief money to provide tax incentives for steel producer Nucor. But their voices were lost in the stampede — despite the evidence, and West Virginia’s own history, showing such giveaways rarely work out.

Reporter Douglas Soule wrote about the disconnect between politicians’ rush to push the project through and the questions put forward by some legislators. For example, Delegate Todd Longanacre, R-Greenbrier, said the people he represents should be able to hear more about the deals, which should go through the Legislature’s regular process.

“Several delegates today on both sides of the aisle have said, ‘not sure what the rush is for,’” he said. “I’ll tell you what the rush is for. There’s a State of the State address coming up tomorrow night, and there’s a dog-and-pony show planned.”

State Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, presides over the Senate floor session on Thursday, Jan. 13, 2022. Photo by Will Price / WV Legislature.

State of the State

Gov. Justice may have wanted to tout the Nucor deal (and other projects in Kanawha and Monongalia counties) at his State of the State address on Wednesday evening. But Justice got sick with COVID-19, and his address was delivered in written form and read aloud by the House of Delegates clerk. As reporter Ian Karbal wrote:

It was also a speech that did not reflect the reality for many West Virginians, perhaps best epitomized by Justice’s own absence; COVID-19 continues to impact the state in profound ways, and the danger is not gone. Cases have reached an all-time high in the state, according to state Department of Health and Human Resources data. 

Justice referred to the state being on an economic “rocket ship ride.” But the Nucor deal was paid for partly with federal American Rescue Plan funds, and at least some of the jobs expected this year will come from federal infrastructure funds and the projects those pay for. The governor promised to make education “our centerpiece,” but offered no details. 

Justice also credited his “Do it for Babydog” vaccine lotteries as one of the best-known vaccine programs in the country. Maybe so, but as Ian has pointed out before, such lotteries have been shown to be mostly ineffective. The good vaccine news regarding the governor: After a couple of rough days, he said in a statement Thursday that he was feeling better, and: “Without question, the fact that I chose to get vaccinated and boosted saved my life, that’s all there is to it.” As he has many times before, he encouraged all West Virginians to get vaccinated.

Children at risk

Ian also noted in his story that state officials expect a wave of children to enter the foster care system as collateral damage from the COVID-19 pandemic. Reporter Amelia Ferrell Knisely reports that – despite Justice promising to fix such problems two years ago – the rate of vacancies in West Virginia’s Child Protective Services system is nearly double than it was two years ago. At least one county, Marion, had more than half of its CPS vacancies unfilled. And fewer workers means, among other things, it takes longer to investigate reports of child abuse and neglect.

State Bureau of Social Services Commissioner Jeffrey Pack, who jumped from the Legislature last year to take that job, told his former colleagues in December that he didn’t know how CPS could continue to operate with so many jobs open, even though such vacancies have been a problem for decades. 

The state has already lowered the requirements for becoming a social worker, and a planned pay raise will still leave CPS salaries below four of our five neighboring states.

Coalfield promises

Reporter Emily Allen reminded us that last summer, House leaders put together a committee “dedicated to developing proposals to help revitalize West Virginia’s communities” – specifically, coalfield communities. The committee members traveled the state and listened to residents, but they haven’t produced much in the way of ideas.

The main idea so far is to create a fund for coal communities, so when they apply for federal money there will be matching funds available. But it remains to be seen whether the state will actually appropriate any money to that fund during the budget process.

One longtime observer of West Virginia’s struggle with the decline of the coal industry, while he’s skeptical of such efforts, believes there has been slight progress, because  a decade ago, some people wouldn’t even acknowledge the decline of coal and the problems of communities that have relied on the industry for decades.

Keeping up

It’s been a busy few days, and if you’re not familiar with the Legislature and how it works, you might be pretty confused. Our statehouse reporter, Ian Karbal, has put together a course of six newsletters about how the Legislature really works. The newsletter is called “Power and Possums,” and if you wonder what that means, you can sign up here and read the first installment.

Greg Moore is a co-founder. Greg grew up in Morgantown and graduated from West Virginia University. He spent nearly 25 years as an editor and reporter at the Charleston Gazette and Charleston Gazette-Mail....