Week one at the West Virginia Capitol
The first week of the 2019 legislative session ended with many lawmakers still scratching theirs heads after hearing Gov. Jim Justice’s State of the State address Wednesday night.
In one way, it was a remarkable speech. There were no props, no big stunts, and mostly no real craziness outside one of his microphones not being on and a gas issues (not the gas issued that politicians normally have, and that’s all I’ll say about that).
The governor was mostly measured while remaining his folksy self. But perhaps we should have had the stunts and props, because they would have distracted legislators and the press from what his actual policy proposals were.
Luckily, lawmakers were paying attention, as was the press. We all had questions over the last couple of days and some of the answers just didn’t make much sense.
For example, back in October the governor pitched a plan to put $100 million into the Public Employee Insurance Agency for long-term stabilization. You would have thought he was making the transfer that day, but he didn’t have that ability. It requires legislative action and a supplemental appropriation if you plan to transfer that money during the current fiscal year.
However, during the State of the State, Justice announced it was going to be $105 million, and it was going to turn into $150 million. He said he would explain. He never did. But State Budget Director Mike Cook was asked about it by state Sen. Corey Palumbo. Turns out the $105 million will come from the budget surplus this far, plus fees paid by state agencies with employees paid for from special revenue accounts or funded through federal grants.
What about JIM’S Dream? It’s about enough having to explain the acronym (Jobs In Making You Succeed. Don’t know where the “You” comes from? It’s the apostrophe on the logo, but you have to tilt your head. I’m not making this up). It took another day to really explain what JIM’S Dream was.
It’s a four-part substance abuse prevention and treatment program that involves prevention programs in schools, free substance abuse treatment, job training through the state’s vocational-technical schools, and expungement of misdemeanor records so the recovering addict can more easily be employed.
A lot of good intentions with the idea, but there are a number of issues. First of all, Justice wants to raid part of the current year budget surplus to pay for part of it. That seems to be a loophole to get around the law that requires half of all budget surpluses to be deposited in the Rainy Day Fund at the end of the fiscal year which ends every June.
Secondly, there doesn’t appear to be a plan going forward on how to pay for it in the future. In fact, there doesn’t seem to be much of a specific plan at all. When lawmakers asked for details during the Senate Finance Committee meeting Thursday night, no one wanted to come to the podium and explain. Not even Justice Chief of Staff Mike Hall.
Governor Justice explained his dream in slightly more detail Thursday afternoon, but it was hard to pay much attention when I was staring at a United Healthcare photo wall. Justice’s explanation was an aside and not why he was talking to the press.
Instead, the media was invited to a public relations stunt. United Healthcare was donating 7,000 drug disposal kits to Recovery Point to distribute around the state. Put your leftover opioids in the bag, pour in some water, and the activated carbon inside dissolves the pills and renders them unusable.
Wonderful, but largely a drop in the bucket. Some would say any step, no matter how small, is a good one. When people say “opioid,” they’re not talking about pills. They’re talking about heroin. But I digress, this isn’t why I’m bringing all of this up.
Sitting in the audience at the press conference was Larry Puccio, the campaign chairman for Justice’s 2016 race for governor (Justice was a Democrat then if you recall). Puccio also ran Justice’s gubernatorial transition, something that was still ongoing as of this time last year, as Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter Jake Zuckerman discovered when he found out that Puccio still had a capitol access key card.
Puccio is the lobbyist for the Greenbrier Resort and was previously a lobbyist for Southern Coal Group, both owned by Justice. He lobbied for several sports leagues trying to get the state to include integrity fees in its sports betting program. Puccio is also a former chief of staff for Joe Manchin when he was secretary of state and governor, then Puccio became the chairman of the state Democratic Party. He chaired Manchin’s 2018 re-election for U.S. Senate.
So, why was Puccio at the press conference? Because he is the lobbyist for United Healthcare, as well as the lobbyist for MedExpress, which had a doctor at the press conference to demonstrate how the drug disposal kits work.
It must be good to be Larry Puccio.
(Adams is the state government reporter for Ogden Newspapers. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)