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Justice outlines legislative agenda in State of the State

CHARLESTON — Gov. Jim Justice lauded a flourishing economy for the state of West Virginia, but didn’t discuss an anticipated $108.6 million revenue shortfall for next year during his State of the State address Wednesday night.

Briefly saying that the state’s severance tax revenue was the lowest it’s been in 25 years, Justice did not address how he anticipated lawmakers would account for what’s been described as a “flat” budget for fiscal year 2021 during his speech in the House of Delegates chamber.

In a speech that saw a special guest appearance by World War II Medal of Honor recipient Woody Williams, Justice announced his goal to get rid of a waitlist for Medicaid waivers, support for a safety net, and a new purpose for the former campus of West Virginia Tech in Montgomery.

About four hours before Justice delivered his speech, Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy told media that the general revenue budget for the 2021 fiscal year would be flat compared to last year, at about $4.58 billion.

The 2021 fiscal year begins July 1, 2020.

At the top of Justice’s speech he said he stood “like a rock” with President Donald Trump and the things he stands for including “legal immigration” and being against sanctuary cities, which Justice said he hoped and prayed never came to West Virginia.

“I can tell you without any reservations I stand with the unborn, and I’m a sportsman,” Justice said. “I love the outdoors. The Second Amendment is ingrained in me forever more, whether you love me or don’t love me. It’s a simple fact.”

In his next point, Justice said a widely circulated photo of members of a Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation officer training course giving a Nazi salute was “not good”

“On my watch, there’s no place for hate, and there’s no place for anti-Semitism on my watch,” Justice said.

Among the governor’s priorities for the 2020 legislative session is the elimination of a waitlist to access a Medicaid waiver for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

The announcement received a standing ovation, with one woman in the crowd thanking Justice as the applause died down.

Medicaid waivers allow for certain rules of the health care program to be waived for people who normally don’t qualify for Medicaid services.

Among those groups who qualify for waivers are people who have intellectual disabilities, but in West Virginia, there’s a waitlist with more than 4,000 names.

Justice on Wednesday asked lawmakers to commit to spending $19.7 million to make it happen.

Justice also asked lawmakers to build into the budget $26.4 million to the Department of Health and Human Resources to hire 87 Child Protective Services workers and better support social services and the Children’s Health Insurance Plan, better known as CHIP.

“We got a real problem, and we gotta own up to it and step up to the plate and do something about it,” Justice said. “So, we’re going to, within my budget … we’re going to try to improve child welfare in the state of West Virginia until it is the very best in the country.”

The state DHHR is facing a lawsuit in federal court, brought by state and national advocacy groups that say the state has violated the federal and constitutional rights of the nearly 7,000 children in its custody.

Early in his speech, Justice said he supported a bill proposed by Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and supported by Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, that would create a safety net when it comes to insurance coverage.

The Affordable Care Act, referred to as Obamacare by its opponents, contains a provision that prohibits insurance companies from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions.

The bill would prevent insurance companies from denying West Virginians health care coverage due to a pre-existing condition in the event that the Affordable Care Act is repealed either through Congress or via any action in court.

A lawsuit is pending in U.S. District Court in Texas that challenges the Affordable Care Act. Morrisey was one of the attorneys general who signed onto the lawsuit when it was filed in 2018.

In other statements from the governor’s speech:

  • Woody Williams briefly took Justice’s podium Wednesday to ask for $12,000 to support a monument on state grounds for Gold Star families, who are families whose loved one has died while serving in the military during a time of conflict. Justice had just announced funding for a veterans nursing home in Clarksburg.
  • Justice supported establishing an intermediate appeals court, saying he thought it could get across the finish line this session.
  • As he talked about economic development, Justice told West Virginians to expect a significant announcement within 30 days regarding a lighting company from Wales.
  • Justice touted his Roads to Prosperity program, saying another bond sale for the program was planned for July. He also mentioned the president for the second time in his speech, saying he wanted West Virginia to capitalize on a $2 trillion federal infrastructure plan Justice said was on its way.
  • Justice asked lawmakers to eliminate the business inventory and machinery tax, saying it was holding the state back. He asked lawmakers how the loss of that particular property tax would affect local county governments and systems that rely on revenue from the tax.
  • Justice said the state will open a new Mountaineer Challenge Academy in Montgomery on the former campus of West Virginia Tech. Justice said the academy expansion will happen without raising taxes or spending new money. The campus hasn’t been in regular use since Tech relocated to Beckley in 2017. The academy, currently located at Camp Dawson in Preston County, is a military-like school that allows students to earn their high school diplomas within roughly five months.

Local officials react positively to State of the State

Bob Plymale

CHARLESTON — Area officials on both sides of the aisle were overall pleased with Gov. Jim Justice’s State of the State address Wednesday evening, stating the governor made it clear he has compassion for the people of West Virginia.

Justice focused his speech on highlighting the successes the state has made over the past three years of his leadership and gave some insight into his priorities during what budget officials called a “flat” budget year. Some of those priorities include eliminating the intellectual/developmental disability waiver waitlist, additional support for food banks and senior meal delivery, and creating a Medicaid rainy day fund.

Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, said he thought the governor showed great compassion for West Virginians, especially when he touched on issues affecting the state’s children and seniors. He said while he still needs to review the actual budget proposed by the governor, he was pleased to hear the governor respect those issues in this tight budget year.

Plymale will also focus on children this session. He said he plans to introduce a bill to beef up support for early childhood services, especially the Birth to Three program, which he said hasn’t been touched in 15 years.

“It’s a good way to address children in the crosshairs of opioid addiction,” he said.

Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert also said he thought the governor’s address showed compassion.

“I was pleased to hear his support for food pantries,” Gilbert said. “We’ve recently opened a new food pantry on Marshall’s campus, and we are having success. I was also glad to hear Huntington and Marshall are having great success toward the opioid epidemic. That really shows the hard work of our medical school and city. Overall it was a positive message.”

Gilbert said he will keep an eye out for any bills allowing the carrying of firearms on college campuses, but he doesn’t think any legislation of the sort will get much traction. He and the other presidents of higher learning are also pushing for a new funding model that would be based on productivity, similar to the model in Tennessee.

Del. Matt Rohrbach, R-Cabell, and Del. Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, both said they were pleased the governor highlighted the positive work that was done last session.

“I was happy he mentioned substance use, because we can’t move forward unless we get that under control,” Rohrbach said.

Rohrbach said he supports eliminating the business inventory tax, which has been considered the past two years, but he said it cannot happen unless the counties are made whole. He said based on his address, he thinks the governor agrees.

Rohrbach and Linville were also pleased to hear the governor support Speaker Roger Hanshaw’s Mountain Impact Fund, which would provide capital to start new business in the state.

Linville said he really enjoyed Justice allowing Cabell County resident and Medal of Honor recipient Hershel “Woody” Williams to speak at the governor’s podium. Linville will be sponsoring a bill based on an idea brought to him by Williams that will create a state Medal of Valor for first responders.

Del. Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, said he was surprised the governor addressed hunger in his speech, and he was happy with plans to expand backpack programs in schools, provide more vans for senior meals and to eliminate the IDD waiver. Still, Lovejoy said overall, there is a lot of work to be done.

“We need to focus on not only making it a place you can survive, but a place that working families can thrive,” Lovejoy said. “I appreciate talking about some success, but we can’t forget there are still a lot of working families in our area back home that are still suffering and maybe not feeling all the backslapping great things discussed. … We have to focus on policies that will keep our young people here.”

Del. Evan Worrell, R-Cabell, was also pleased with the health priorities of the governor, including the Medicaid reserve fund and ensuring more access to food for all West Virginians. Other things the governor mentioned, Worrell wasn't so sure of, however.

"We just want our roads fixed and maintained," Worrell said. "Before we start putting money into a futuristic travel pod, let's make sure West Virginians can drive on roads that aren't riddled with potholes or falling in. I would also rather see tax reform for our citizens before investing in other technologies."

Commission resolution would deny EMS employee union recognition

HUNTINGTON — Cabell County commissioners will vote on a resolution Thursday denying a demand from county emergency service employees to be formally recognized as a union.

EMS workers said forming a union is necessary to protect themselves from potentially dangerous working conditions, which include ambulance trips to hospitals out of state with little to no sleep.

However, the commission’s proposed resolution says state law does not grant public employees the right to collectively bargain and employees should instead ask state lawmakers to pass that legislation.

During an Oct. 24 commission meeting, representatives from the United Mine Workers of America demanded the commission recognize the UMW as the union representing Cabell County Ambulance Service employees. More than 100 EMS employees expressed interest in seeking union representation and they are prepared to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement, representatives said.

As the agency overseeing the Cabell County Ambulance Service, the County Commission would need to formally recognize the union before any such negotiations could begin.

UMW representatives came back to the commission Dec. 12 and demanded an immediate vote, but commissioners could not take action because the item had not been placed on the agenda prior to the meeting.

Several county paramedics spoke to reporters following the meeting, saying they fear for their safety and the safety of the public. They have several concerns, including a lack of paramedics to staff necessary ambulances in certain parts of the county. Within the past three years, paramedics have fled the ambulance service because of exhaustion, they said.

Paramedics are frequently being called to transport patients to hospitals over long distances, including to Cleveland, Ohio, and to Durham, North Carolina.

“They’ll wait to like midnight and send us to Cleveland,” said paramedic Robbie Carpenter. “We work 24-hour shifts, from 7 a.m. to 7 a.m. So if at midnight you send me to Cleveland, I’m not getting back until at least the end of my shift. So I’ve technically been up for 24 hours at a time, which is dangerous because we are driving a large ambulance being sleep deprived.”

The paramedics said they are not seeking more money, only more precautions to prevent accidents and burnout. If they had more paramedics on staff, they could distribute the call volume and be able to sleep partly at the ambulance station until needed.

The commission’s proposed resolution says state lawmakers have not enacted legislation “establishing the right of county employees to bargain collectively, to have mediation and binding arbitration, and to strike.”

The resolution cites two West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals decisions, including one case between the city of Fairmont and the AFL-CIO. That ruling said public employees have some rights under the First Amendment to organize and petition, but a public employer is not required to recognize or bargain in the absence of state law.

The court held in a separate ruling that, without state legislation, common law of both federal and state courts does not grant public employees the right to strike. All county employees are regulated by state law, including EMS employees, but that law contains no provisions regarding collective bargaining or striking, according to the resolution.

The proposed resolution also cites state code saying county commissions shall provide emergency ambulance services to all residents within their county, but the commissions are not required to provide services exceeding their available funds.

State law also allows EMS employees to come to the County Commission or the West Virginia Office of Emergency Medical Services with any safety concerns, the resolution states.

If approved, the resolution will deny the demand for union recognition without prejudice, meaning employees could make the same demand in the future. It will be denied without prejudice “to the right of the UMWA and Cabell County Emergency Service employees to request the West Virginia Legislature to adopt a statutory framework for collective bargaining, mediation, binding arbitration and striking by county emergency medical service employees.”

The Cabell County Commission meeting will be at 10 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 9, inside the Cabell County Courthouse Commission Chambers.

Cabell County EMS Director Gordon Merry did not want to comment Wednesday and said it would be more appropriate for him to speak following Thursday’s meeting. A request for comment from UMW Communications Director Phil Smith was not returned by press time Wednesday.