The Charleston Gazette-Mail, W.Va., Statehouse Beat column

2018-01-14 | Coal Valley News (Madison, W.Va.)

Jan. 13--While the Republican-controlled Legislature gave prodigal son Gov. Jim Justice a warm reception Wednesday during the State of the State address, things weren't nearly as auspicious a couple of days earlier when the Senate refused to confirm an unprecedented 12 Justice appointees.

For most of my now 28 regular sessions covering the Legislature, confirmations have been a formality. Regardless of the governor's party affiliation, unanimously approving the governor's appointments was a given, done as a matter of courtesy.

Yes, Truman Chafin would frequently single out a rival or three, but after letting them sweat, most often, would stand aside and let their confirmations be approved.

If an appointee could not be confirmed for some substantive reason, such as not meeting qualifications for the office, the normal protocol was to bring it to the governor's attention, so that appointment could be discretely withdrawn.

However, since taking control of the Legislature in 2015, the GOP legislators have sometimes acted like freed hostages taking vengeance on their captors.

In 2016, the Senate blocked six appointees, all with ties to either the Democrat Party or organized labor, and took out a couple more in 2017, both active Democrats.

Some of the 12 current rejections have rational explanations. Confirmations blocked reappointments for three members of the Board of Funeral Service Examiners who had approved the wrist-slap, six-month license suspension for Chad Harding, who had cashed in more than 100 pre-need funeral plans prematurely.

Likewise, they removed Robert Gray from the state Health Care Authority citing state code prohibiting members of the HCA from receiving anything of value from any health care provider. Gray receives a pension from Thomas Memorial Hospital, where his wife works.

From there, the rejections got pretty iffy.

Take Tim Bailey, a Charleston lawyer whose confirmation to the West Virginia University Board of Governors, where he had been serving since July, was blocked.

In moving to remove Bailey's name from consideration, Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, (whom Justice famously likened to a poodle last year), claimed that Bailey's law firm, Bailey, Javins, and Carter, had published "inflammatory" and "unprofessional" materials that were critical of the Legislature.

I did a Google search and the only thing I could find was a 2015 post on the firm's website alerting clients to so-called tort reform measures passed by the Legislature that session.

It began: "The recent election that brought Republicans into power in the West Virginia Legislature has resulted in many changes. One such change is significant tort reform. Recently, the Legislature passed many measures that limit the recovery rights of those that are injured. As a result, it is important for everyone to be familiar with the changes and what they mean."

Doesn't seem inflammatory to the point of justifying removing Bailey from the WVU BOG, particularly given his strong emotional bond to the university, and his commitment to serve it.

(I asked Ferns to elaborate on the inflammatory statements claim, but did not get a reply.)

When Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, asked in Confirmations Committee for details about Bailey's statements, he was cut short by Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, who argued the committee had an obligation to maintain confidentiality for the individuals they were axing.

"We don't need to air the laundry out, and the reason why we're doing this," Blair said.

That Bailey is a frequent campaign contributor to Democratic candidates probably didn't help.

Bailey's rejection may have been the biggest slap for Justice, who reportedly had gone to bat to get him confirmed.

Also strange, well maybe not so strange, was the rejected reappointment of Eran Molz to the West Virginia Northern Community and Technical College Board of Directors.

Molz, I gather, was particularly disappointed by his ouster, since he was preparing a report for the board on possible job training opportunities if a proposed Ohio Valley cracker plant comes to fruition.

Molz apparently had two strikes against him: One, he's a business agent for the International Union of Operating Engineers, and two, Ferns doesn't like him.

Also blocked for reappointment to the state Tourism Commission was Joseph Manchin IV, son of the U.S. senator targeted by the GOP this election cycle.

The official reason for Manchin's rejection was that he does not have direct participation in any private sector tourism enterprise.

----Maybe it was because the element of surprise of his first unscripted State of the State address was lost, but I found myself underwhelmed by Justice's second address, which managed to be too much and too little simultaneously.It appeared as if someone advised Justice that if one prop is good, a dozen props must be great.

So we had not one, but two whiteboards, the ax and tackle box from Inauguration Day, multiple silver platters, and the Greenbrier East High School girls basketball team. (Let's hope the player revealed to a statewide audience to have ringworm is not mortified for life.)

While Justice's 2017 address had big ideas for turning the state around, with massive road building and economic development proposals, his 2018 address seemed tempered, small, acceding the no-taxes attitude of the legislative leadership.

It was about as inspiring as the promise of a 1 percent pay increase for teachers and state employees, which is tantamount to leaving your waitress a 50-cent tip.

Even the key initiative, a seven-year $140 million rollback of the state business inventory tax, was uninspiring.

There was a sense of double déj... vu, with this being the latest time that we've been told if we eliminate or rollback this or that "job-killer" tax, prosperity will be around the corner.

While counties have been assured they will be made whole for lost property tax revenue, it's not the first time the state has been left waiting for the Godot of economic growth to offset lost tax revenue.

Meanwhile, some found it hypocritical when Justice introduced the new Tax Division enforcement director, whom he said will make sure that highways contractors pay their taxes.

----Finally, where to begin? I met Paul Nyden in Beckley in 1981, which as it turns out, was at about the midpoint of his journey.I attended some of his legendary Beckley parties, which would start on Friday evening and frequently run through Sunday evening, featuring an eclectic cast of characters, including reporters, educators, historians, coal miners, union reps and whomever Paul had met that week at Jimmie's Place or the Moose Club.

Much has been written this week much more eloquently than I could attempt about Paul's accomplishments as an investigative reporter, mentor and advocate for working men and women.

I figure Paul just abhorred the exploitation of people, be it in South Africa, Latin America or the West Virginia coalfields.

So I wanted to focus on one area of mutual interest, baseball. For many years, we had a running competition (sometimes literally) at Watt Powell Park to see who could buy the first beer sold on Opening Day.

For many years, Paul had season tickets at Power Park, although I would be hard-pressed to tell you exactly where they were, since he never sat in them, preferring to patrol the park's broad concourses, beer in hand, socializing while keeping an eye on the game at hand.

Paul's son, Christopher, grew up in the ballparks, to the point that when he was four, the ballplayers that season adopted him as their unofficial mascot, making a space for him in the team clubhouse.

I've been drawn this past week to Bart Giamatti's essay on the last day of Boston Red Sox's 1977 season, "The Green Fields of the Mind," which closes like this:

"It breaks my heart because it was meant to, because it was meant to foster in me again the illusion that there was something abiding, some pattern and some impulse that could come together to make a reality that would resist the corrosion; and because, after it had fostered again that most hungered-for illusion, the game was meant to stop, and betray precisely what it promised.

"Of course, there are those who learn after the first few times. They grow out of sports. And there are others who were born with the wisdom to know that nothing lasts. These are the truly tough among us, the ones who can live without illusion, or without even the hope of illusion. I am not that grown-up or up-to-date. I am a simpler creature, tied to more primitive patterns and cycles. I need to think something lasts forever, and it might as well be that state of being that is a game; it might as well be that, in a green field, in the sun."

Reach Phil Kabler at

philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.