It was easy to forget looking at the crowded, mostly maskless House of Delegates chamber that Jim Justice was only there making his speech on Thursday night because of a previous battle with COVID-19. His previously scheduled State of the State, which was delivered to the Legislature in writing, was canceled when the governor grew seriously ill. But Justice appears to have rebounded.
As is typical, for both Justice and these annual speeches, it was largely a victory lap. Having emerged from the second year of the pandemic with better-than-predicted financial stability, Justice touted his accomplishments — investments in tourism, the creation of the Department of Economic Development, the Nucor deal. He also laid out new ideas, like mandatory coding and programming classes in middle and high school, a program to offer people who’ve left the workforce $1500 for finding and maintaining a job, and a corporate partnership with Toyota to streamline the process of government contracting.
But perhaps what was most striking about Justice’s speech was the lack of boldness in his policy proposals to meet the moment. The last two years have exacerbated and highlighted many of the greatest issues facing West Virginia, like they have in the country at large. While Justice acknowledged these endemic problems, like the opioid epidemic, hunger, and an educational system consistently ranked among the lowest in the country, his proposals to fix them lacked detail.
Instead, the headline-grabbing moment of the night was when Justice brought his bulldog to the front of the House chamber and lifted her rear end to the crowd. To a standing ovation, the governor took a swipe at singer Bette Midler over derogatory comments she made about West Virginia, and told all of the critics they could “kiss [Babydog’s] hiney.”
Still, there was a lot to unpack in Justice’s address, in the issues and policies that he focused on, glanced over, or ignored altogether.
It’s no small feat to have come out of the last two years with a better economic outlook, by some measures, than analysts expected at the beginning of the pandemic. And on his economic accomplishments, the “rocket ship ride” (which he’s promised for five years and has become something of a Justice catchphrase), the governor claimed his biggest victories. But despite citing “record after record,” the rosy picture Justice painted doesn’t stand up to closer inspection.
Time and time again, he touted West Virginia’s record low unemployment rate, which fell to 3.7% in December. But he didn’t acknowledge that the rate can be partially attributed to the state’s lowest-in-the-nation labor force participation rate, which covers the percentage of people actively looking for work. West Virginia has long ranked last in the nation in this category.
WorkForce West Virginia representatives say there are more open jobs in the state than there are people in the workforce. They have also recently acknowledged that, despite ending federal unemployment benefits three months early and current efforts to reduce the number of weeks someone can get unemployment, changes in benefits didn’t play much of a role in the workforce problem.
In the speech, Justice outlined his proposal to raise the number of working West Virginians: a $1,500 one-time payment for people who can get and hold a job for eight weeks.
“It doesn’t sound like much at all, but really we have got to some way get them back because they are sitting on a porch somewhere right now a lot of them that are absolutely willing and able, and we need them back,” he said.
The other measure of economic success that Justice touted was the state’s revenue surplus, a measure that’s not an accurate depiction of the state’s economy. Injections of federal stimulus money, a delayed income tax deadline and low-balled revenue projections all played a role in creating the surplus.
But it was also in economic development that Justice was able to claim his biggest victories.
He brought up the deals he initially announced two two weeks ago: that three major companies were moving to or expanding in West Virginia, which is expected to produce thousands of jobs in the state. And he also announced major investments in roads and infrastructure.
But while Justice spent much of the night attacking President Joe Biden and reminding the Legislature “let’s not be Washington, D.C.,” it’s the billions of federal dollars from COVID relief money and a bipartisan infrastructure package that will be paying for a significant portion of these programs, and created enough demand for the Nucor steel company to seek to build another plant.
An ongoing pandemic
At the time of last year’s State of the State, delivered virtually instead of to a full House chamber like last night’s, West Virginia had received national praise for how quickly the state mobilized to vaccinate nursing homes and the elderly.
But the state fumbled after its early success.
The Delta variant tore through West Virginia in late fall and hospitals barely had time to recover before Omicron arrived. Still, in Thursday’s speech, Justice praised the virus mitigation efforts that he and his administration have taken.
“As elderly as we are, as close as we are to population and as absolutely so many different diseases and illnesses we have with our citizens, this could have absolutely wiped us out,” he said. “It could have been really, really bad.”
But for many it was bad, and continues to be bad.
Just this week, the state surpassed its previous record high COVID-19 hospitalizations. Overall, West Virginia has among the 10 highest COVID death rates of any state in the country. And in spite of Justice’s “Do it for Babydog” vaccination lottery, West Virginia’s vaccination rate still lags the country’s at large. Experts and health care workers have repeatedly questioned the wisdom of many of Justice’s decisions, especially as the pandemic dragged into its second year.
One noted success was the $10 million Emergency Management Crisis Fund he announced at the end of December.
“It wasn’t all of the money in the world, but we did it out of one of the last tranches of monies that we had from the CARES money,” Justice said. “And we have done this for our EMS workers.”
EMS agencies have been stretched to their limits during the pandemic, but issues concerning their long-term funding and security existed before the pandemic too. And EMS leaders said at the time that they had asked the governor for CARES funds long before he announced the new fund in December.
Another initiative that didn’t get a mention was a plan to spend millions training nurses that may have long term benefits, but did little to help current health care workers who are overstretched and understaffed, according to the West Virginia Nursing Association.
The other epidemic: opioids
Recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that drug overdoses rose sharply during the pandemic, and West Virginia was one of the states hit hardest. Overdose deaths increased by more than 60% in West Virginia between April 2020 and April 2021.
Rather than announce more funding for drug treatment and overdose prevention, the governor used his State of the State to call for a more punitive approach to prosecuting drug dealers. That’s despite the fact that after decades of employing a “tough on crime” approach to substance abuse, evidence and consensus among experts — including in West Virginia — increasingly points towards the strategy’s ineffectiveness.
There was no reference to the pharmaceutical companies that fueled the opioid crisis by pumping painkillers into the state over decades. Instead, Justice focused on fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid that is increasingly mixed in with other drugs, and a significant driver of overdoses today.
Justice addressed the state’s dire need to help hungry West Virginians – the state’s food banks reported a 30% increase last year spurred by the pandemic – with two sentences.
“We don’t need people in our state hungry,” he said. “We need to absolutely fund our food banks and absolutely do any and everything we possibly can do to make sure we don’t have West Virginians go hungry.”
At the end of last year, Justice announced that $5 million from the state’s CARES Act funding would go to food pantries and food banks, though anti-hunger advocates criticized the governor’s slow rollout of the money as hunger numbers spiked and kids learning from home struggled to get food.
While the money was needed, anti-hunger advocates and food bank employees have been vocal about other needs, like addressing that many of the state’s pantry workers are unpaid volunteers. Transportation issues make it difficult for both pantry workers and those in need of food to get to distribution sites in the state’s rural landscape. Additionally, the state has continued to push policies that make it harder to apply for emergency food assistance.
Several of Justice’s new ideas he presented last night revolved around helping West Virginia’s K-12 schools — a 5% pay raise for public employees, including teachers; free college-level classes for high school students; mandatory computer coding classes, and stricter punishments for teachers who abuse students were all policies he implored the Legislature to take up.
But the state’s education system is facing more serious problems, as pointed out by the West Virginia Department of Education late last year. There’s a serious state teacher shortage: A recent study found that 20% of new West Virginia teachers left after their first year.
At the same time, WVDE noted, there’s been an increase in “unqualified teachers” leading classes outside their area of expertise, who are more likely to leave school districts and are less effective at teaching students.
“Without decisive action and strategic investments in the profession, this revolving door will continue at the expense of the educators who remain; the students and families who rely on high-quality education; and the workforce and economy of the state of West Virginia,” the report said.
This is more complicated than just pay raises, the report found. It recommended offering different pathways to certification, a recruitment campaign and more robust mentoring programs.
Locally, the shortage has meant there are 27 open positions in McDowell County schools. Teacher shortages have become so bad in Jefferson County that in 2021, the school district announced from October to November that year they would be releasing students from class early on Fridays.
There is still time for Justice to make more substantive proposals: the deadline to introduce legislation for this year’s regular session is Feb. 21. Last year, he requested lawmakers consider 87 bills between the House and the Senate. As of Friday, he had only requested six.