Statehouse Beat: Roads to be Justice's ultimate downfall | Phil Kabler

Statehouse Beat: Roads to be Justice’s ultimate downfall | Phil Kabler

I suspect Jim Justice’s downfall will come not from a federal investigation, not from unpaid taxes and bills, not from no-confidence votes, and not from Woody Thrasher or Joe Manchin, but from roads.

A little factoid bears that out. Last week, newly appointed Transportation Secretary Byrd White proudly announced that Highways workers had ditched — cleared and opened ditches — 2,090 miles of roadway in preparation for repaving this spring or early summer.

Which is nearly as long as the route of the Empire Builder (the Chicago-to-Seattle section, not Chicago to Portland), and we all know how long that is.

All that seems like real progress, until you consider that, according to Highways’ own figures, the state maintains a total of 38,770 miles of roadways, so 2,090 miles of roads amounts to a little over 5 percent of the total.

So, if the state can repave 5 percent of roads this spring and early summer, and pave another 5 percent this summer and fall, and maybe get another 5 percent prepped for paving next spring, that puts the state on pace to repave 15 percent of roads by the May primary and perhaps 20 percent by the General Election.

Which means for the vast majority of voters, Justice’s promise to fix the damn roads will appear to be a broken one. Which will play well on the campaign trail for Justice’s opponents, who will be able to ask crowds, “Did Justice fix your roads?” To which they will likely respond with a resounding, “No!”

The bottom line is that, even with the additional $220 million or so that ousted Transportation Secretary Tom Smith and current Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy have secured for secondary road maintenance this year, that’s still close to a half-billion dollars short of what the Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways concluded the state needs to be spending each year to adequately maintain our roadways.

If it was Justice’s “I alone can fix this” narcissism that led him to decide to own the roads issue, that narcissism may well cost him reelection in 2020.

I have to say, I felt sorry for Justice during his news conference last week.

Ostensibly intended to announce progress on roads, it quickly veered off into a mini-deposition on Thrasher’s entry into the governor’s race, on the federal Department of Justice investigation into Justice’s Old White Charities, and into reports that Justice had threatened seasonal shutdowns of The Greenbrier resort if Greenbrier County commissioners proceeded with plans to raise the county’s hotel-motel tax.

In so many words, Justice essentially confirmed what the West Virginia Daily News’ Bobby Bordelon first reported, that Justice had met privately with commissioners, threatening to close the resort in the winter months if they did what practically every other locality in the state has already done, and increase the “bed” tax to the 6 percent maximum.

At the presser, Justice danced around the question, at one point noting that the ideal business model for The Greenbrier would be to close after the Christmas holidays and reopen in the late spring, and at another point stating, “An additional bed tax is layering something on The Greenbrier that I don’t know if The Greenbrier can withstand.”

(The assertion that a 3-percent fee increase might be the tipping point for the resort cannot be reassuring to those concerned about its long-term viability. Particularly when, according to the resort’s website, a $358-a-night room includes $50.69 in taxes and fees, of which $10.74 is the hotel-motel tax. The rest is sales taxes and a 6.5 percent “historic preservation fund” fee, and that doesn’t count the $39 “daily resort fee.”)

Justice’s comments were incriminating on several levels.

At the very least, it shows that Justice remains personally involved in the operation of at least one of his many businesses, despite repeated claims that he had turned control of his businesses over to his children — providing fodder for his 2020 opponents who will assert that Justice is a “part-time” governor who is frequently preoccupied with running his private businesses.

At worst, Justice used the authority of his public office of governor to intimidate the commissioners into backing down on the tax increase in order to benefit his private business. In talking with Bordelon about his coverage, he indicated that during the meeting, Justice asked the commissioners to address him as governor, which is very out of character — unless you’re playing the intimidation factor.

Also notable is that the day before the Oct. 28 meeting with commissioners at The Greenbrier, Justice held a news conference in Lewisburg to discuss the need for a regional airport to serve southeastern West Virginia, and suggested that the Beckley airport — not Lewisburg — could be best suited for that regional status. (Recall that the primary reason commissioners wanted to raise the hotel-motel tax was to subsidize additional air service into the Greenbrier Valley Airport.)

Having failed to put most of his assets into blind trust, Justice has to maintain a figurative tightrope walk to avoid falling into allegations of use of public office for private gain, as The Greenbrier hotel-motel tax episode reveals.

While I’m all in favor of transparency, it was painful to watch Justice walk into this minefield of self-incrimination, with no press secretary, no chief of staff, no trusted adviser to intervene to bring the questioning back to the primary topic at hand, or to simply cut the presser short.

Longtime Republican consultant Bill Phillips makes an excellent point about the no-confidence votes against Justice by various GOP enclaves.

Phillips posits that political operatives are agitating county executive committees and College Republican groups into taking stands against Justice purportedly on the grounds that he doesn’t strictly adhere to the party platform. Phillips notes that, under normal circumstances, almost nobody pays any heed to party platforms.

(Throughout his career, the venerable Arch A. Moore Jr. had union support, opposed right-to-work laws and steered clear of abortion issues. Yet, I don’t recall any no-confidence votes by the GOP against pro-union, abortion-neutral Arch.)

Phillips has a hunch that Don Blankenship’s operatives are the agitators, and I have a hunch he’s right.

It’s notable that in the American Legislative Exchange Council’s annual “Rich States, Poor States” survey of economic competitiveness, ALEC downgraded states for having progressive income taxes (i.e., tax rates that increase with higher incomes), and for having state minimum wage rates above the $7.25 an hour federal minimum wage.

In other words, states that attempt to require wealthier residents to pay their fair share of taxes, or that try to provide the working poor with at least a near-subsistence wage, if not close to a living wage, are deemed uncompetitive by ALEC.

ALEC also penalized states that don’t impose near-impossible draconian measures in order to raise taxes, including requiring super-majority legislative votes or approval by voter referenda.

(There have been numerous statistical analyses that have refuted the core premise of the annual ALEC study, that low-tax, low-government spending states have higher rates of economic growth. On a strictly empirical level, I think most people would say the “worst” states in the survey — New Jersey, California, Illinois, Vermont and New York — are preferable places to the “best” states of Utah, Idaho, North Dakota, Nevada and Indiana.)

Very clearly, ALEC’s mission is to promote legislation beneficial to its corporate sponsors, at the expense of working class Americans.

That may be worth keeping in mind when ALEC-drafted public education “reform” measures — primarily intended to cut state spending on education and to allow private-sector profiteering — resurface during the upcoming special session.

Finally, many of us celebrated prematurely when the federal transportation appropriations bill passed in February with Sen. Manchin’s amendment to restore station agents at Amtrak stations that were staffed as of Jan. 1, 2018 — including Charleston.

While we had visions of welcoming Matt Crouch — who said he’s kept his union card in the interim — back to CHW, it turns out Amtrak officials managed a last-minute wording adjustment to Manchin’s amendment.

According to Trains magazine, instead of restoring station agents to those stations destaffed in 2018, the wording was changed to require personnel at those stations in the form of caretakers, who are to “assist passengers” and “provide customer service.”

Charleston has been operating with caretakers at the station since it was destaffed, anyway.

From my experience, the part-time caretakers vary widely in level of activity, from doing the bare minimum required, which entails opening the waiting room at a specified time and keeping the facilities clean, to actually assisting travelers, advising where they need to line up to board, announcing train arrivals and delays, etc.

However, no matter how diligent, the caretakers cannot perform those two most vital services, ticket sales and checking baggage.

I’m advised that Manchin and other members of Congress are committed to trying to specifically restore station agents in the 2019-20 appropriations bill.

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