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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: Does West Virginia Rank in the Top Quarter of States for Education Spending?

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Striking teachers Michelle Myers, left, Holly O’Neil, center, and Suzanne Varner of McNinch Primary School in Moundville, W.Va., wave to passing cars outside the state capitol in Charleston, W.Va, on Feb. 23, 2018. Photo: AP

Does West Virginia rank among the top quarter of states for public education spending? That’s what the West Virginia Republican Party said in a Twitter thread recently that criticized the school system for subpar performance benchmarks.

In the April 5 thread, the party made the case that “West Virginia’s education system is not successfully serving our students. Comprehensive education reform will ensure students have what they need to succeed, parents have the freedom to decide the best education path for their children, and we invest in good teachers.”

Later in the thread, the party said that “according to the 2016 Annual Survey of School System Finances, U.S. Census Bureau, West Virginia spends more tax dollars on public education than all but 13 other states and the District of Columbia.”

Is it accurate to say that West Virginia is in the top one-quarter of states for public school spending? We didn’t hear back from the state party, but we took a look at the original data.

The report in question is published annually by the U.S. Census Bureau.

We first looked at raw dollars spent, listed in Table 3 in the report. Rather than ranking towards the top, West Virginia ranked 13th lowest in this category among the 50 states, with $3.1 billion. The states with smaller expenditures were, in alphabetical order, Alaska, Delaware, Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming.

Of course, there’s something that those 12 states below West Virginia share: They’re all small, and that is a major factor determining their low levels of spending.

So, to eliminate a state’s size as a factor shaping the data, we next turned at expenditures per pupil.

In the report’s Table 4, the report shows that West Virginia was right around the national average in spending per pupil — $11,424 in West Virginia, compared to $11,841 for the United States as a whole. We found 22 states that spent more per pupil than West Virginia, not 13, as the tweet said.

Finally, since the tweet used the wording “tax dollars,” we looked at the tax burden for revenues spent in each state on education. The data in the report’s Table 2, shows the amount of local, state and federal tax dollars that were raised in each state on a per-pupil basis.

By this measure, West Virginia raised $12,375 in tax revenues per pupil. In all, 28 states had higher figures, and the national average was $13,474.

Bottom line: None of these measurements supported the assertion in the tweet.

Our ruling

The West Virginia Republican Party said, “West Virginia spends more tax dollars on public education than all but 13 other states and the District of Columbia.”

Using the specific federal data source cited in the tweet, neither the revenue level nor the spending level in West Virginia had that ranking, either in raw dollars or per pupil. In fact, using per-pupil spending, West Virginia is right around the national average, rather than ranking in the top one-quarter of states.

We rate the statement False.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Fact Check

Fact-check: Is Joe Manchin the Only Senator to Consistently Vote Against the Nuclear Option?

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In this Jan. 22, 2018, file photo, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., talks with a staffer on Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo: AP Photo/File

For decades, majority leaders in the U.S. Senate have threatened to use the “nuclear option” to change senators’ ability to filibuster, a maneuver that blocks bills from coming to a vote unless a supermajority of the chamber votes to proceed.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., is one member of the body who has fought to protect the status quo.

In a recent tweet, Manchin said, “I was the only member of the Senate – Republican or Democrat – who has consistently voted against efforts to use the so called ‘nuclear option’ to change the rules of the Senate. This move is a betrayal of the people we represent.”

We wondered whether Manchin was right that he had a uniquely consistent record on such votes. So we reached out to two experts in Senate procedure to see whether Manchin’s statement was accurate. (Manchin’s office did not respond to an inquiry.)

What is the nuclear option?

First, some background on the nuclear option.

As we’ve previously noted, there is a legend of uncertain veracity that says George Washington and Thomas Jefferson came to agree that the Senate should serve as a “saucer” to the House’s “tea cup” — a vessel for cooling the passions emanating from the House.

Whether the specifics of the tale hold up, the idea that the Senate is the slower, more cautious half of Congress has been the chamber’s reputation throughout its history. The Constitution delegates internal rule-setting to the Senate itself, and for much of its history, the chamber — unlike the House — did not implement any mechanism to maneuver around a member who was determined enough to block action through a filibuster.

In 1917, the Senate voted to empower a supermajority of two-thirds to cut off a filibuster and move on to other business by invoking a motion known as “cloture.” (Since the Senate had 96 members then, that meant 64 were needed to invoke cloture if all members were voting.) Then, in 1975, the Senate voted to lower the supermajority to its current number, 60 out of 100 members.

Still, 60 votes is a significant hurdle for a chamber that has not often had one party win that many seats. In recent years, the two parties have become more polarized, and more willing to filibuster, even on matters that had previously been treated as routine. That has put pressure on Senate leaders to get rid of the longstanding supermajority hurdle or else face gridlock — especially for such high-stakes topics as nominations.

Detractors have warned that such important matters were better dealt with using the higher degree of consensus conveyed through a 60-vote supermajority. But there is one tool available to a Senate leader willing to buck the chamber’s long standing tradition: the nuclear option.

The mechanics of the nuclear option (which has nothing to do with anything literally nuclear) are complex even by the standards of parliamentary maneuvers, requiring a precise series of carefully choreographed steps. Readers brave enough to tackle the details can refer to multi-page explanations in these two reports by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

The gist, though, is that the majority party would move to change the supermajority rule through a series of votes that require only a simple majority.

Recent nuclear votes

Gregory Koger, a University of Miami political scientist, cited four key votes for the nuclear option. One came in 2013, when the Democrats were in control, one came in 2017, when Republicans were in control, and the final one came in 2019, when the Republicans were still in control.

In 2013, the Democratic leadership used the nuclear option to get rid of the filibuster for all nominations except Supreme Court appointments. Manchin voted against his own party, to keep the status quo.

In 2017, Republicans leaders called a vote to eliminate the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations. Here, Manchin cast a vote to maintain the status quo, siding with Democrats against the Republican majority seeking to go nuclear.

Then, in 2019, Republican leaders offered two relevant votes. While they weren’t specifically about filibusters, they addressed delaying tactics that can advantage the minority.

One vote would shorten the debate time after cloture from 30 hours to 2 hours for district judges. The second would do the same for non-Cabinet executive appointments.

In both cases, Manchin voted to maintain the status quo.

In 2013, two fellow Democratic senators voted with Manchin and against their party’s leadership — then-Sens. Carl Levin of Michigan and Mark Pryor of Arkansas. Neither remains in the chamber.

And two Republicans who voted with Democrats in the 2019 votes had stuck with their own party in the 2017 vote, meaning that their voting record wasn’t “consistent” with the status quo in all cases.

Our ruling

Manchin said, “I was the only member of the Senate – Republican or Democrat – who has consistently voted against efforts to use the so called ‘nuclear option’ to change the rules of the Senate.”

Experts in Senate procedure tell PolitiFact that Manchin is correct, having voted in favor of the status quo — and against “nuclear option” efforts — in each of the four relevant votes between 2013 and 2019.

We rate this statement True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Fact Check

Fact-check: Have Exports from West Virginia Risen Faster than the U.S. as a Whole?

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Heavy equipment and trucks move coal in the Sun Coal Co. coal yard along the Kanawha River in Dickenson, W.Va., on Jan. 19, 2018. Photo: AP

Have West Virginia exports been on fire recently? A tweet by the West Virginia Republican Party suggests so.

In an April 2 tweet, the state party said, “West Virginia’s exports increased for the second year in a row in 2018, reaching $8.1 billion. Additionally, West Virginia’s export growth rate was 14.2%, nearly double the national average of 7.6%.”

Did West Virginia really outpace the national average of export growth rates?

The tweet linked to a March 17 article in WVNews. In turn, the article cites a March 15 news release by the West Virginia Department of Commerce that reported data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Caitlin Ashley-Lizarraga, an international trade specialist at the West Virginia Department of Commerce, pointed us to detailed Census Bureau data collected by a private-sector subscription database, the Global Trade Atlas.

The table shows that West Virginia did indeed export $8.1 billion to the rest of the world in 2018, and that represented a 14.2% increase over the export total for 2017.

The increase for the nation as a whole was a little over half that — 7.6%.

We were able to replicate this data using the Census Bureau’s own USA Trade Onlinedata portal.

While the export growth in West Virginia was strong between 2017 and 2018, it’s worth noting that this expansion came from a small base.

In fact, West Virginia ranks thirteenth from the bottom in total exports for 2018. The states ranking below West Virginia are Arkansas, Delaware, Idaho, Maine, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming.

Our ruling

The West Virginia Republican Party tweeted, “West Virginia’s exports increased for the second year in a row in 2018, reaching $8.1 billion. Additionally, West Virginia’s export growth rate was 14.2%, nearly double the national average of 7.6%.”

The data, which we verified with a U.S. Census Bureau database, supports what the tweet said. We rate the statement True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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