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

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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

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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