Friday, January 28, 2022

Statehouse Beat: Justice crashes the boards | Phil Kabler

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During one of his ever more frequent off-topic digressions during state COVID-19 briefings, Gov. Jim Justice used an odd turn of phrase in welcoming friend and frequent Greenbrier County neighbor Brad Smith as president of Marshall University: “I congratulate all those folks at Marshall that turned the key to make all this happen.”

In real estate, a turnkey property is move-in ready with no additional work needed. Likewise, a turnkey business operation is one that is ready to serve customers, with all needed equipment and inventory in place. In technology, a turnkey system is one with all needed hardware and software provided.

Justice’s use of the phrase gives the impression the selection of Smith was a foregone conclusion, and all that was required of the Marshall Board of Governors was to “turn the key” with the formality of approving his appointment.

Justice might have had some comfort level going into the Board of Governors vote, considering he had appointed all 13 appointive members of the board, including three appointments made in July.

Justice appointees include Chris Miller, son of Republican Rep. Carol Miller and active in GOP politics, and Angel Moore, a statehouse lobbyist who frequently collaborates with Larry Puccio, lobbyist for The Greenbrier and political confidant of Justice.

Justice made all 13 appointments after his failed effort in 2017 to oust Marshall head football coach Doc Holliday. According to news reports, Justice persuaded members of the reconfigured board to order Holliday’s firing in January.

This spring, Jerome Gilbert, who by all accounts has done an exemplary job as university president, also announced he would not seek a contract renewal.

While calling Justice the least impressive of the six governors I’ve covered is an understatement, he’s been remarkably astute in one area: Making appointments to multiple state boards and commissions.

I believe it was Delegate Joey Garcia, D-Marion, who served as legislative liaison under Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who confided that the single biggest challenge of the governorship is finding people willing to serve on said boards and commissions — particularly since the laws creating those boards and commissions set specific membership requirements based on congressional districts, political party affiliation and other delineations. (More on that later.)

By law, members of boards and commissions whose terms have expired continue to serve until their successors are appointed, and when Tomblin left office, there were considerable numbers of board members and commissioners who were serving expired terms.

Justice — or more likely a Justice advisor (Puccio, perhaps) — recognized the opportunity, and set Justice off on a massive, wide-ranging spree of appointments.

Some have made headlines, such as Justice’s appointment of all three commissioners on the Public Service Commission, including the appointment of retired West Virginia Coal Association president Bill Raney in August — an appointment that raised controversy when the commission approved foisting the multi-million dollar costs of briefly extending the lifespans of three coal-fired power plants onto state residents.

Likewise, Justice’s appointments this summer of four of the seven appointed members of the Educational Broadcasting Authority, including conservatives Greg Thomas, Taylor Hood and Danielle Waltz, raised concerns Justice is attempting to turn West Virginia Public Broadcasting into a mouthpiece state media outlet for the Justice administration.

Sure enough, one of the first acts of the reconstituted authority was to fire WVPB Executive Director Chuck Roberts, as apolitical a guy as you might meet, who worked his way up the ranks on the technical side of broadcast operations.

The authority then selected former Justice Press Secretary Butch Antolini as interim executive director, raising concerns Justice intends for WVPB to function as part of his massive taxpayer-funded promotional machinery.

(As noted here previously, when Roberts was named executive director in December 2018, one of his first actions was to notify the governor’s office that WVPB staffers would not be participating in the governor’s then-new Communications Hub. “I don’t see us reporting and also being part of that pool,” Roberts said at the time.)

Justice’s transmogrification of the authority might not be over, since two of the three remaining appointed members are serving expired terms, including longtime Chairman Bill File.

Also, as noted here last week, the Public Employees Insurance Agency has been a flashpoint for Justice, who has replaced all but one member of the PEIA Finance Board, removing aggressively pro-employee members Elaine Harris and Josh Sword.

Five of those eight appointments came after the statewide teachers’ walkouts of 2018 and 2019, prompted in part by doubts about the long-term stability of PEIA benefits.

No wonder that when state teacher union presidents Dale Lee and Fred Albert raised concerns at the last Finance Board meeting about projections of major PEIA premium increases in coming years, Justice was upset no one defended him.

There are many other examples of boards and commissions where Justice has appointed all or a majority of positions, including the state Board of Education and Personnel, Public Employees Grievance and Environmental Quality boards, to name a few.

To come full circle, let’s finish with the West Virginia University Board of Governors, where Justice has filled all 12 appointed positions.

That includes some familiar names, such as Justice’s former senior adviser, Bray Cary; his former appointee as state Lottery director and longtime friend Alan Larrick; and the current chief financial officer of Justice’s Greenbrier resort, Elmer Coppoolse.

Given the tumultuous times facing higher education in the state, with the likelihood of continuing state funding cuts and the reintroduction of Campus Carry legislation, Justice’s stacking of the Marshall and WVU boards is disturbing.

No wonder Dr. Clay Marsh, vice president for health sciences at WVU, neither dares step down as state COVID-19 czar nor interrupt Justice at COVID-19 briefings when Justice interjects his not necessarily valid thoughts on medical or public health questions, or goes off-topic, launching into partisan political tirades.

These boards and commissions are set up to have staggered terms for members to avoid just this scenario, where any one governor is able to exert undue influence by appointing a majority or plurality of members.

The impact of Justice’s stacking of these boards and commissions will be felt for years.

The politicization of COVID-19 vaccinations has reached an astonishing new milestone in West Virginia, with most fully vaccinated residents suddenly experiencing vaccine hesitancy when it comes to getting their booster shots.

According to state DHHR data, through Friday, 46,386 booster shots have been administered – amounting to just 5.3% of the 873,371 West Virginians 18 or older the DHHR lists as being fully vaccinated.

Most of those doses were administered shortly after booster shots were authorized. In the past couple weeks, the number of booster doses has crept up only very gradually — despite Justice and Marsh going on the air thrice weekly to plead with residents to get their boosters to avoid putting themselves at risk as the effectiveness of their initial doses wanes over time.

One would think the fully vaccinated would be the most persuadable part of the population, since they willingly got their initial doses, undoubtedly including many who got their shots during the early March surge when the state was administering more than 20,000 doses a day. (The current seven-day rolling average is 1,160 doses a day.)

Presumably, between then and now, large numbers of fully vaccinated West Virginians have had an attitude adjustment when it comes to the vaccine.

Have they been influenced by misinformation on Facebook and right-wing media? Confused by a governor who consistently says it is imperative that everyone get vaccinated, then follows up by saying that because this is ‘Murica, you don’t have to get the damn shots?

Last year, holiday gatherings and travel caused a surge in state COVID-19 cases in December and January, at a time when availability of vaccines was still highly limited.

This year, West Virginia seems to be in no better position to avoid another holiday surge, despite the abundance of highly effective vaccines that are available to the vast majority of state residents.

Finally, getting back to gubernatorial appointments, as noted, by law, a number of state boards and commissions have membership requirements set by congressional districts.

Which is now a problem, since legislative policies of the past six years that were purported to grow the economy have caused people to leave the state in droves, contributing to West Virginia’s loss of a congressional seat.

Legislation creating those boards and commissions that divide membership up among congressional districts operates on the assumption there are three districts, which will require some legislative clean up.

I looked up a couple boards and commissions where representation by congressional district is an issue:

The seven-member Lottery Commission must have at least two members from each congressional district, so dropping to two districts doesn’t strictly pose a compliance issue, except that it makes it possible to defeat the intent of the legislation, to assure roughly equal representation statewide on the commission.

Then comes the Judicial Vacancy Advisory Commission, which has eight appointed members and specifies that no more than three may be residents of the same congressional district.

Obviously in that instance, the math won’t work with only two districts, so the law creating that commission will need to be tweaked in the 2022 session, along with, undoubtedly, many others.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a train to catch.

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