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PolitiFact Fact-check: West Virginia’s 2019 State of the State

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West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice addresses at news conference, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018, at the state Capitol in Charleston, W.Va. Justice announced that striking teachers would return to work on Thursday, and that he’s offering teachers and school service personnel a 5-percent pay increase in the first year. Photo: John Raby/AP Photo

As Gov. Jim Justice prepares to deliver his State of the State address on Wednesday, PolitiFact West Virginia thought it would be worthwhile to take a look at the state of the state as seen through our recent fact-checks.

PolitiFact West Virginia was launched in August 2018 as a partnership between PolitiFact and the Media Innovation Center in West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media. Under the editorship of PolitiFact senior correspondent Louis Jacobson and Reed College teaching associate professor Bob Britten, roughly 20 students fact-checked and published more than four dozen claims about West Virginia during the fall 2018 semester. The project is continuing in the spring 2019 semester.

The following includes some of the fact-checks published in PolitiFact West Virginia over the previous six months, when Justice, a Republican, was serving as governor. They include claims about West Virginia’s recent economic growth, poverty rates, and measurements of health and education.The good news

“In 2017, the number of new business registrations in West Virginia grew nearly 11 percent (8,318 new businesses registered for the year). This comes off the heels of a 12 percent increase in new business registrations during 2016.”

Claim by: West Virginia Republican Party

Mostly True

The data comes from the Business Statistics Database maintained by the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office, and the office confirmed to PolitiFact the accuracy of the numbers in the tweet.

Erin Timony, the office’s assistant communications director, said the numbers focus on limited liability companies and corporate business license registrations by county. Since other types of businesses are not included, the data does not encompass all new businesses in the state.

Another point to note: The tweet cites business registrations, but not business closings.

Data compiled by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that 15 out of the last 17 quarters have seen more business deaths than births in West Virginia.

This doesn’t mean that the business registration data is wrong; rather, it just says that the tweet paints an incomplete picture.

“West Virginia added the highest percentage of new construction jobs in 2017 in the United States, at 14.4%. This amounted to 4,300 additional jobs! In fact, #WV was the only state with double-digit growth!”

Claim by: West Virginia Republican Party

True

The source is a report by the Associated General Contractors of America, a trade association in the construction industry. The comparison is drawn from data collected from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The five states with the biggest percentage increases during 2017 were West Virginia, California, Nevada, New Mexico and Idaho. So the party’s tweet was accurate.

Still, the current level of construction employment in West Virginia hasn’t returned to its nearly three-decade peak in the period before the onset of the Great Recession, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

It’s worth noting that construction jobs, while important for people within the industry and within adjacent industries, only account for about 4.5 percent of non-agricultural employment in the state — about 34,000 construction jobs in August 2018 out of 752,000 nonfarm jobs in all.

Still, as far as the tweet’s limited claim goes, it is accurate.The bad news

“Adjusting for inflation, West Virginia’s median household income has not grown in a decade.”

Claim by: Democratic state Sen. Mike Romano

True

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that in 2007, the inflation-adjusted median household income in West Virginia was $49,885 — the culmination of a decade and a half of consistent gains above the rate of inflation.

But one decade later, the 2007 figure remains the state’s highest median income level since the statistic was first recorded in 1984. Over that decade, the median income fell by 9 percent when factoring in inflation.

The nation as a whole has seen some income stagnation since 1999, but nothing as severe as West Virginia experienced. Nationally, median incomes have risen every year since 2014 and hit an all-time high in 2017.

The poverty rate in West Virginia “was 19.1 percent, the fourth-highest in the country.”

Claim by: Democratic state Sen. Mike Romano

True

We turned to official U.S. Census Bureau data for poverty by state and looked at 2017, the most recent year for which data was available. While there are two main Census Bureau sources for poverty statistics — the Current Population Survey and the American Community Survey — experts we consulted with agreed that the American Community Survey data was better for a statewide statistic because it has a much larger sample size.

It’s correct that West Virginia had the fourth-highest poverty rate of any state in 2017, at 19.1 percent. The states that had higher rates were, in descending order, Mississippi, Louisiana and New Mexico.

“In 2017, West Virginia’s $43,469 median household income was $16,867 below the national average, ranking 50th.”

Claim by: Democratic state Sen. Mike Romano

True

In September 2018, the U.S. Census Bureau released a report that included data for household income in 2017. The figure for the United States was $60,336, while the figure for West Virginia was $43,469. The difference is exactly $16,867, as Romano said.

Meanwhile, we ranked the 50 states by household income and found that West Virginia ranked last, trailing Mississippi by $60.

“Last year we had the eighth fastest-growing economy in the country in West Virginia.”

Claim by: U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va.

Mostly False

Earlier this year, data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis — the federal office that calculates economic growth in the states — showed that West Virginia ranked 11th in inflation-adjusted growth in gross domestic product between 2016 and 2017, with a 2.6 percent increase. That’s not the same as eighth, but it’s close.

That data, however, was subsequently updated, and the newer data is less favorable to West Virginia.

In the most recent calculations, West Virginia actually ranked 19th out of the 50 states in year-over-year change in GDP, with a 2.2 percent increase. So West Virginia was in the top half of the ratings table, but well below the eighth-place finish that McKinley cited.

West Virginia “has the highest overdose rate per capita of any state in our nation.”

Claim by: U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.

True

We turned to an analysis of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that was collected and analyzed by the Kaiser Family Foundation. The data is from 2016.

Manchin’s tweet wasn’t specific about whether he was referring to opioid overdoses specifically or overdoses generally. The Kaiser Family Foundation analysis includes data for both, so we looked at both categories.

On both lists, West Virginia has the unhappy distinction of ranking No. 1.

The opioid overdose rate in West Virginia easily outpaces the second-ranking state, New Hampshire. As for overdoses overall, West Virginia finishes first, with Ohio ranking second.

“Black lung cases are at a 25-year high.”

U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.

True

Black lung disease, also called coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, is caused by dusts that are inhaled and deposited in the lungs, which can create scar tissue that makes it more difficult to breathe. The condition can be prevented with appropriate respiratory protection, but once it develops, there is no cure, according to the American Lung Association.

A news release from Manchin and Capito cited a study published by the American Journal of Public Health. Researchers used radiographs collected from 1970 to 2017 to determine the ebb and flow of the disease.

The study found that not only have black lung cases increased but also that their prevalence will likely be reflected in future trends of such conditions as progressive massive fibrosis, which refers to masses in the upper pulmonary lobes of the lungs.

The report shows that around 1970, the prevalence of black lung was far higher than it is today — about 30 percent of miners with the longest tenures. That rate fell steadily, and by the late 1990s it had declined to the single digits.

But that decline has since reversed. Now, the national prevalence in miners with 25 years or more of tenure exceeds 10 percent, and in central Appalachia, 20.6 percent of long-tenured miners have the disease.Some context on education

West Virginia University’s incoming freshman class has the “highest-ever GPA.”

Claim by: WVU President Gordon Gee

Mostly True

On the university’s website, it says that “the average student enrolled in WVU’s Fall 2018 freshman class had a 3.55 high school GPA, an ACT score of 24 and a combined Math and Critical Reading SAT score of 1133.

Stephen Lee, WVU’s associate vice president of enrollment management and executive director of admissions and recruitment, provided PolitiFact with a partial run of older data.

The data Lee provided shows that average GPAs for the previous three years were 3.47 for the freshmen of 2017, 3.46 for the freshmen of 2016, and 3.45 for the freshmen of 2015.

The data shows a steady increase in the freshman GPA, which supports Gee’s point, but the data goes back only to 1995. So we can’t independently confirm that this fall’s freshmen have the highest GPAs “ever.”

“From 1990 to 2015 under (Democratic) control, W. Va. teacher pay rank plummeted from 30th in the nation to 48th.”

Claim by: Republican state Del. Paul Espinosa

Mostly False

The numbers vary a bit from measurement to measurement, but there’s no question that West Virginia currently ranks near the bottom of the 50 states in teacher pay.

A CNN article published around the time of the West Virginia teacher strike, on March 5, 2018, pegged the state at 48th in the nation — consistent with Espinosa’s second figure. The article cited data collected by National Education Association, a prominent teachers union.

We were able to find a more recent figure from the NEA and by then, West Virginia’s ranking had grown even worse. It fell for the second year in a row, to 49th.

Meanwhile, we located data from earlier NEA surveys and found that West Virginia hasn’t ranked higher than 44th since 2004.

However, we weren’t able to find NEA data online prior to 2003, so we turned instead to data collected by the federal Education Department. This data set goes back to the late 1960s.

This data shows that West Virginia pay has trailed national pay by a fairly consistent margin since at least 2000. It also shows that teacher pay hasn’t kept up with inflation during the last decade.

As for West Virginia’s ranking nationally, it fell precipitously between about 1970 and 1990, then spiked upward before starting to decline again around 2000.

Whether the Democrats are to blame, however, is more of a mixed picture than Espinosa lets on.

First off, the time period is cherry-picked. The legislature had been controlled by the Democrats for decades until the GOP won control in the 2014 elections. By ending his time frame at 2015, Espinosa  overlooks the period when the GOP controlled the Legislature — a period in which the state’s teacher pay ranking has fallen, according to the annual NEA data.

In addition, the 1990-to-2015 time frame cuts out the governorship of Republican Arch Moore (who served three non-consecutive terms, from 1969 to 1977 and from 1985 to 1989). It also cuts out the current governorship of Jim Justice, who was elected as a Democrat but later switched to the GOP. Currently, Republicans control the governorship as well as both chambers of the legislature.

As it happens, the greatest increase in the teacher pay rankings during the period Espinosa cited came between about 1990 and 2000. During most of that period, the state had a Democratic governor, Gaston Caperton. A couple years of that time span were under a Republican governor, Cecil Underwood.

Ultimately, then, the partisan blame does not accrue exclusively to the Democrats.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

Fact Check

Fact-check: Did Cabell County, W.Va., Cut Overdoses by 40 Percent?

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Thommy Hill stands outside the Cabell County/Huntington Health Department, where he works in the harm reduction program, in Huntington, W.Va., on Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2018. The former drug dealer has become its gatekeeper and central cog in the program. He knows every drug user who visits and constantly tries to persuade them to try treatment _ arranging immediate transportation and handing them a backpack full of clothes if they agree. Photo: AP Photo, Tyler Evert

During his State of the State address on Jan. 9, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice made the opioid epidemic a focus of his speech.

At one point, Justice said, “Now, in Cabell County, we just had information that we reduced our overdoses by 40 percent.”

The governor’s office did not respond to an inquiry, and when we reached out to local and state offices, we were unable to get a response on one key point. For that reason, we aren’t rating this statement on the Truth-O-Meter, but we decided to share what we did find out.

Only data on nonfatal overdoses was available for 2018; we were unable to confirm the statistics on fatal overdoses. Justice didn’t specify the type of overdose in his speech.

Data on overdoses is reported to the West Virginia Office of Emergency Medical Services.

Connie Priddy, a Cabell County EMS compliance officer who is tasked with reporting official data to the state, told the Huntington-based Herald-Dispatch newspaper in January that Cabell County had 742 fewer non-fatal drug overdoses in 2018 compared with the record-setting 2017. That was a decrease of 40.5 percent.

Cabell County had fewer overdoses in each month of 2018 compared to the same month in 2017, Priddy told the newspaper. In December 2018, for instance, there were 80 overdoses, compared to 118 overdoses in December 2017. (We reached out to Priddy’s office but did not hear back.)

Cabell County, in the western part of the state, is one of West Virginia’s most populous counties and includes the city of Huntington. As we’ve previously noted, West Virginia has the highest overdose rate per capita of any state in our nation, and Cabell County has been particularly hard hit.

So why the decline in fatal overdoses? A trio of federal grants, we learned, likely helped.

In September 2017, the city of Huntington announced that Cabell County had received three federal grants totaling $2 million.

Two of the federal grants, from the Justice Department and the Department of Health and Human Services, were designed to support the county’s Quick Response Team, a group comprised of “medical care providers, law enforcement, recovery and treatment providers, and university researchers to respond to individuals who have overdosed within 72 hours.”

The team is responsible for designing a plan of action after an overdose, as well as “overdose education, screening, risk-reduction training” and training in the use of naloxone, which is used to treat overdoses.

The third grant, also from the Justice Department, was designed to aid the Turn Around program, a pilot program at a local jail that identifies and assesses individuals convicted of misdemeanors who have health and substance-use issues.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Fact Check

Fact-check: Is Jim Justice Right About a Record Surplus in 2019?

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Gov. Jim Justice, R. W.Va., delivers his annual State of the State speech on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, in Charleston, W.Va. Photo: AP Photo/Tyler Evert

Shortly before the start of the 2019 legislative session, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice touted the state’s improved budget position for the 2019 fiscal year.

In a tweet sent on Jan. 8, Justice wrote, “Another month of record-breaking revenue numbers! For December, we had a $44.8 million surplus. Year-to-date we are $185.9 million above estimates. This is the largest cumulative surplus for the first six months of any fiscal year in state history!”

Is that correct? Justice’s office didn’t respond to inquiries, but we were able to find supporting evidence.

The tweet linked to a press release from the that detailed the list of revenues and expenses from the general revenue fund, and data from West Virginia State Budget Office supported the information in the press release.

The general revenue fund for December — the most recent completed period at the time of Justice’s tweet — had a $44.8 million dollar surplus, with collections totaling $185.9 million more than had been estimated. That’s in line with Justice’s tweet.

But is this actually the largest first-six-month surplus of any fiscal year in state history?

Numbers from WV Checkbook and the West Virginia State Budget Office, with information dating back to 1999, confirm that through the first six months of the 2019 fiscal year, West Virginia did indeed have the largest cumulative surplus since 1999.

The previous post-1999 high occurred in 2011,  when the budget surplus hit $159.9 million more than estimated.

According to the governor’s office, the rise in collections can be attributed to an increased rate of growth in a number of taxes including severance tax, corporation net income tax, consumer sales tax and personal income tax.

It’s worth noting that every year, West Virginia’s economy grows bigger, so comparing budget figures across time, as Justice did, is tricky. The state’s gross domestic product, when adjusted for inflation, was 14 percent bigger in 2017 than it was in 1999.Our Ruling

Justice said for fiscal year 2019, West Virginia had “the largest cumulative surplus for the first six months of any fiscal year in state history.”

We checked the historical data and found that he’s correct going back to 1999. However, that’s not the entire history of the state. We couldn’t confirm any data prior to 1999, so it’s conceivable that there was a larger surplus prior to that year.

We rate the statement Mostly True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Fact Check

Fact-check: Would One Fentanyl Seizure Be Able to Kill Every West Virginian 32 Times Over?

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In its purest form, two to three milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal. Courtesy: New Hampshire State Police Forensic Lab

When President Donald Trump announced that he would go around Congress to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border by declaring a national emergency, U.S. Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va., tweeted a video supporting the idea.

In the Feb. 15 video, Miller said, “West Virginia has been hit especially hard by illegal drugs smuggled across our southern border. Just two weeks ago, Customs and Border Protection seized enough fentanyl to kill every person in West Virginia 32 times over.”

There’s no question that West Virginia has been hit hard by the opioid crisis — PolitiFact West Virginia has previously reported that the state ranked No. 1 in the nation for opioid overdoses per capita.

But what about the idea that a single federal seizure of fentanyl could have killed every West Virginian 32 times over? We took a closer look.

Miller’s office told us that they were referring to late January seizure of 254 pounds of fentanyl by Customs and Border Protection at the Nogales port of entry in Arizona. The drugs — which were “concealed within a special floor compartment of a trailer that was laden with cucumbers,” according to the the agency — represented the largest fentanyl seizure in the agency’s history.

Miller’s office also walked us through the math they used to arrive at their figure.

The seizure of 254 pounds converts to 115.2 kilograms. In turn, 115.212 kilograms equals 115.212 million milligrams.

Miller’s office said it used 2 milligrams as a lethal dose of fentanyl, citing information from the Drug Enforcement Administration that 2 milligrams is “a lethal dose for most people.”

Meanwhile, 115.212 million milligrams works out to 57.606 million lethal doses of 2 milligrams each.

West Virginia’s population in 2018 was 1,805,832. If you divide 57.606 millon lethal doses by 1,836,843, it means that amount of fentanyl could theoretically kill every West Virginian 31.8 times over. Rounded up, that works out to the 32 times that Miller cited.

To make sure the 2 milligram threshold was sound, we checked with Timothy J. Pifer, the director of the New Hampshire State Police Forensic Laboratory, an expert on fentanyl and its lethality.

“Based upon research, toxicology reports and information from other agencies, two to three milligrams of fentanyl in its purest form could be fatal,” Pifer said.

However, he added that the technical details make a difference.

For one thing, if you use the 3 milligram threshold instead, the Nogales seizure would be enough to kill every West Virginian about 21 times over, not 32. There would also be a difference in lethality depending on the age, body size, and health of the individual in question.

In addition, Pifer added that “is not clear whether or not the 254 pounds is pure fentanyl or fentanyl that has been already diluted for sale or distribution on the street.” The average degree of purity would make a difference in its lethality.

One final point: Miller used the statistic to support the case for constructing a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. However, the fentanyl was seized at a port of entry. A wall wouldn’t prevent that type of smuggling through established checkpoints.  

Our ruling

Miller said, “Just two weeks ago, Customs and Border Protection seized enough fentanyl to kill every person in West Virginia 32 times over.”

If you consider 2 milligrams to be a lethal dose — which the Drug Enforcement Administration does — then Miller’s estimate is very close to correct. The only caveat is that differences in purity and the health and size of the potential victim can make a difference.

That said, there’s no question that the fentanyl from the seizure, spread evenly and effectively through the population, could have killed every West Virginia resident many times over.

We rate the statement Mostly True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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