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Fact-check: West Virginia Governor’s State of the State Address



Photo: Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography

Gov. Jim Justice delivered his third State of the State addresstonight, proposing the elimination of a state tax on Social Security benefits, a 5 percent pay raise for state employees including teachers, and millions of dollars more for substance abuse and other social services.

PolitiFact West Virginia took a look at the accuracy of a few of Justice’s statements in the speech. We will analyze additional statements from the speech in the coming days.

When I took office, “our state was bankrupt.”

Not exactly.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice gives his state of the state address on Jan. 9, 2019. Photo: Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography

In October 2018, we looked at a similar claim by Justice — “A little over one year ago I was sworn in as your governor. At that time, our state was bankrupt for all practical purposes.” We ended up not providing a truth rating for that statement because it was hard for us to weigh the meaning of the phrase “for all practical purposes.”

In the State of the State address, Justice offered no such qualification.

Justice was elected in November 2016 and was sworn into office on Jan. 16, 2017.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data released in 2016, West Virginia’s accumulated debt at that time was in excess of $7.2 billion. We’ll use this as a rough stand-in for the scale of the debt at the time Justice became governor.

The problem is that having debt — even in the billions of dollars — does not necessarily mean that a state is broke.

Dictionaries define “broke” as “having no money; bankrupt” and “without money; penniless.”

That was not the case for West Virginia, which still paid its bills. Further, under federal law, it’s doubtful that a state would be allowed to declare itself bankrupt.

Credit agency ratings serve as a gauge of a state’s creditworthiness. West Virginia’s status wasn’t perfect, but it was also not at the bottom of the scale.

One of the main credit agencies, Standard and Poor’s, had West Virginia in both 2016 and 2017 at a rating of AA- on a scale of AAA to BBB-. That’s worse than many states, but the same as or better than others, including California, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

And as a worst-case scenario, a state could always raise taxes to help pay its bills. (This would be politically unpopular, but it would be a way to avoid being unable to pay outstanding bills.)

We’ll use an analogy we’ve used previously: Your paycheck doesn’t cover your bills every month, but you have a great credit score, you use your credit card to cover the difference, and have no trouble paying your credit card bill. Would you describe yourself as “bankrupt” or “impoverished”?

We wouldn’t. We’d reserve that description for the neighbor who was behind on his mortgage and couldn’t pay his creditors.

“As long as the state can service its debt, it is not bankrupt,” said Brian Lego, a research assistant professor for economic forecasting at West Virginia University. “The state was in difficult financial circumstances at the time (of Justice’s statement) due to the downturn in coal and weakness in natural gas. But it was not bankrupt.”

West Virginia currently has the “biggest surplus in the state’s history.”

This appears to be correct.

On the eve of the State of the State speech, the governor’s office announced that collections for fiscal year 2019 were $185.9 million above estimates, producing “the biggest surplus in the state’s history during the first six months of any fiscal year.”

“Greenbrier County has a 100 percent graduation rate.”

According to the state Education Department’s county-by-county graduation statistics web page, Greenbrier County — where Justice lives — had an 89.97 percent four-year graduation rate and a 90.88 percent five-year graduation rate. Neither is as high as 100 percent.
As we noted in our initial report, we reached out to the governor’s office for clarification and said we would adjust the article as needed. On Jan. 12, the governor’s office told us that Justice had been referring specifically to the Communities in Schools program in Greenbrier County. His office said that high-school seniors in that program have a 100 percent graduation rate.

According to the state Education Department’s county-by-county graduation statistics web page, Greenbrier County — where Justice lives — had an 89.97 percent four-year graduation rate and a 90.88 percent five-year graduation rate. Neither is as high as 100 percent.

This was a puzzler, and we’ve reached out to the governor’s office for clarification. We’ll update this article if we hear back.

“In 2017 we greatly surpassed the national growth” rate in tourism.

We have rated a similar statement by Justice Mostly True. He had said that the state’s tourism industry “grew at a rate 30 percent above the national rate in 2017.”

According to a West Virginia Press report published in the Herald-Dispatch, the data came from the 2017 West Virginia Travel Impacts study undertaken by the firm Dean Runyan Associates. The study was prepared on behalf of the state tourism office.

In the nation as a whole, the report found, spending by resident and foreign visitors increased by 3.0 percent over 2016. In West Virginia, by contrast, total travel spending increased by 3.9 percent.

If you do the math, 3.9 percent is 30 percent higher than 3.0 percent.

That said, it’s worth noting that Justice highlighted the most favorable data in the report. He chose not to highlight the fact that, according to the report, local tax revenue from tourism fell by 2.7 percent over the same period, while state tax revenue fell by 1.2 percent.

“The tolls on the turnpike are going to change to $4.00 in a couple of days and we have pleaded with you and pleaded with you to buy your E-ZPasses that are almost going to cost you little to nothing.”

Justice isn’t kidding when he said he’s pleaded with West Virginians to buy E-ZPasses.

In August 2018, he tweeted, “BIG SAVINGS: I promised a great E-ZPass deal and here it is. Thousands of folks are opening West Virginia E-ZPass accounts, and you can join them! If you sign up now, your plan will automatically transition to the $24 three-year plan in September.”

In October, we looked at whether he was right that “thousands of folks are opening West Virginia E-ZPass accounts.”  

Dalphord W. Webb, director of customer service operations for West Virginia E-ZPass, told PolitiFact West Virginia that “from August 1 through October 15, there were 13,630 new West Virginia E-ZPass accounts opened.”

If you prorate the number of new accounts that would have been opened between August 1 and August 27 — the day of Justice’s tweet — it works out to a bit under 5,000. That still counts as “thousands.”

We rated the statement True.

EDITOR’S NOTE, Jan. 12, 2019: This article has been updated to reflect additional information provided by Justice’s office about the graduation rate in Greenbrier County.

This story was originally published by PolitiFact.


Fact-check: West Virginia Governor’s Stats on Growing Foster Care Numbers Mostly True



West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice during his 2019 State of the State address. Photo: Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice took to Twitter to encourage residents to adopt foster children.

On Nov. 9, Justice tweeted, “November is #NationalAdoptionMonth! As of September 2018, there are 6,683 WV children in foster care — 1,415 of whom are legally eligible for adoption. To learn more about adoption or becoming a foster parent, contact Mission WV at 866-CALL-MWV (225-5698).”

We took a closer look at the underlying data and found a small discrepancy.

The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources’ Bureau for Children and Families keeps records on this question, including a monthly legislative report.

According to the October 2018 report, which includes numbers through the end of September 2018, there were 6,683 children in the West Virginia foster care system. However, a slightly smaller number of these children — 6,289 — are listed as “WV children.” The remaining 394 are out-of-state children who happen to be in the West Virginia system.

We asked the agency why there are “out-of-state” children in the system. They said these children are legal residents of West Virginia who have been relocated out-of-state, such as living with a relative. Despite currently living out-of-state, these children remain eligible to receive care through West Virginia’s system.

The same in-state vs. out-of-state distinction holds for the second part of Justice’s assertion — the number of foster children who are eligible to be legally adopted.

What qualifies a child in foster care to be “legally eligible for adoption”? To be adopted, their parents must have their parental rights terminated.

A spokeswoman for the agency, Allison Adler, told PolitiFact West Virginia that the children in the “relatives/kinship” category in the following chart are the only ones legally eligible for adoption.

That means that 1,415 children in the system overall are eligible for adoption, but are legally eligible for adoption, but of those, only 1,392 are “WV children.”

Justice’s office did not respond to an inquiry for this article.

Our ruling

Justice tweeted, “As of September 2018, there are 6,683 WV children in foster care — 1,415 of whom are legally eligible for adoption.”

Justice isn’t far off with his numbers, but he lumps in a modest number of out-of-state children with “WV children” for both numerical categories he cited. We rate the statement Mostly True.

This story was originally published by PolitiFact.

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



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


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


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


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


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.


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.


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.

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