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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

Checking Bernie Sanders on Life Expectancy in Virginia, West Virginia

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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a campaign stop Thursday, May 5, 2016 at the Morgantown Event Center. Photo: Jesse Wright/WVPB

During a June 12 speech at George Washington University, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders offered what he said was a stark example of income inequality and its real-world consequences.

“In 2014, for example, in McDowell County, W.Va., one of the poorest counties in the nation, life expectancy for men was 64 years. In Fairfax County, Va., a wealthy county, just 350 miles away, life expectancy was nearly 82 years, an 18-year differential. The life expectancy gap for women in the two counties was 12 years.” 

Was Sanders right? We took a closer look. (Sanders’ campaign did not respond to an inquiry.)

Let’s start by noting that the two counties are indeed at opposite ends of the income spectrum.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, McDowell County, in the heart of Appalachian coal country, has a median household income of $25,595, about 44 percent of the national median household income of $57,652.

By contrast, Fairfax County, located in the affluent suburbs of Washington, D.C., has a median household income of $117,515, or slightly more than double the national median. 

So median household income is more than four times higher in Fairfax County than it is in McDowell County.

What about life expectancy?

The longest-running data on life expectancy by county in the United States is compiled by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington. We used the institute’s interactive database to find the most recent data for both of the counties Sanders mentioned.

Here’s a summary for 2014, the most recent year available:

The data shows that life expectancy is a few years longer than Sanders said for men in McDowell County — 67 instead of 64 — which in turn makes the gap for men between the two counties 15 years, rather than the 18-year figure Sanders cited.

For women, Sanders also is slightly off — there’s an 11-year gap rather than a 12-year gap.

But while Sanders is a bit off on the numbers, his overall point is sound. In fact, not only can people in Fairfax County expect to live longer than those in McDowell County, but the gap between the two has been widening for nearly four decades.

This chart shows life expectancy for men, women, and both in the two counties since 1980. Figures for McDowell County are shown in red, and figures for Fairfax County are shown in green. It’s easy to see the trend lines going in opposite directions.

It appears that Sanders’ comparison actually emerged more than five years ago, in a New York Times article by Annie Lowrey. She wrote:

Fairfax County, Va., and McDowell County, W.Va., are separated by 350 miles, about a half-day’s drive. Traveling west from Fairfax County, the gated communities and bland architecture of military contractors give way to exurbs, then to farmland and eventually to McDowell’s coal mines and the forested slopes of the Appalachians. Perhaps the greatest distance between the two counties is this: Fairfax is a place of the haves, and McDowell of the have-nots. …

One of the starkest consequences of that divide is seen in the life expectancies of the people there. Residents of Fairfax County are among the longest-lived in the country: Men have an average life expectancy of 82 years and women, 85, about the same as in Sweden. In McDowell, the averages are 64 and 73, about the same as in Iraq.

Our ruling

Sanders said, “In 2014 … in McDowell County, W.Va., one of the poorest counties in the nation, life expectancy for men was 64 years. In Fairfax County, Va., a wealthy county, just 350 miles away, life expectancy was nearly 82 years, an 18 year differential. The life expectancy gap for women in the two counties was 12 years.” 

A few of these numbers are slightly off, but Sanders’ overall point that there is a large gap in life expectancy between the two counties is solid. We rule his statement Mostly True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Fact Check

Fact-check: Can Cell Phones, Bluetooth Defeat Credit Card Skimmers?

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A researcher holds a magnetic credit card "read head" that is used to read information from cards during retail transactions. Photo: AP

Should you be worried about credit card fraud when you pull up to the gas pump? A post circulating recently on social media says you can deploy your cell phone to stay safe.

An April 14, 2019, post on a Facebook page called “Local Jackson County News WV” told readers they can use their cell phones at gas stations to determine whether a pump has a credit card skimmer — a device that can steal credit card numbers.

The post said, “Just a tip, When you pull up to the gas pump to fill up your car, get your cell phone and search for Bluetooth devices. If a sequence of letters and numbers show up don’t pay at the pump. One of the pumps has a credit card skimmer inside of it. All of these skimmers run on Bluetooth.”

Can Bluetooth sensors always determine if there are credit card skimmers in gas pumps? We took a closer look.

How skimmers work

First, some basics: Credit card skimmers are real, and they’re illegal.

When installed in gas pumps, skimmers listen for the data traffic from the credit card reader, record it to memory and pass that data onto the pump controller.

Skimmer technology has become so advanced that thieves do not have to return to the pump to retrieve the stolen information. Perpetrators can simply sit in their cars and download credit card information to a laptop.

A special agent with the U.S. Secret Service told NBCNews last year that the agency recovers 20 to 30 skimmers a week, with an average skimmer holding information from 80 credit cards.

Can Bluetooth sensors stop skimmers?

Bluetooth can be a useful tool for consumers who want to protect their information, but they are far from foolproof.

Paige Anderson, the director of government relations with the National Association of Convenience Stores, a trade group representing gas stations and convenience stores, told PolitiFact that there are too many kinds of credit card skimmers to rely on a phone to detect them.

“Some use Bluetooth technology, some use cell service and some skimming devices store the data themselves,” Anderson said.

Vassil Roussev, a computer scientist and director of the University of New Orleans Cyber Center, said that a “hit” on Bluetooth “could very well be an indicator of compromise by a skimmer, but it could also be any number of other devices within 30 feet or so, such as devices in other cars. More importantly, not finding one does not mean the pump is safe.”

The skimmer need not be detectable by Bluetooth, he said, or it could be programmed to send signals only at certain times.

“Overall, I would say that this tip offers a low level of protection,” Roussev said.

Anderson added that checking for skimmers is something gas station owners and workers need to do on a daily basis.

Retailers should conduct daily internal and external checks and take other measures to foil data thieves, she said. These practices reduce the risk of potential credit card theft, she said, though they may not eliminate it.

Our ruling

Local Jackson County News WV published a post that said, “Just a tip, When you pull up to the gas pump to fill up your car, get your cell phone and search for Bluetooth devices. If a sequence of letters and numbers show up don’t pay at the pump. One of the pumps has a credit card skimmer inside of it. All of these skimmers run on Bluetooth.”

Checking a Bluetooth sensor in your cell phone before inserting your credit card in a gas pump may be able to determine whether the pump has been compromised. However, skimmer technologies vary, and many types of skimmers won’t be detectable using the Bluetooth method.

We rate the statement Half True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Fact Check

Fact-check: Are 19% of West Virginians on Food Stamps?

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A food drive at Newark Liberty International Airport, on Jan. 23, 2019. Photo: AP, Julio Cortez

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., recently took to Twitter to criticize a Trump administration proposal on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, sometimes known as food stamps.

Manchin wrote: “19% of WVians rely on SNAP, but proposed changes would take food assistance from those struggling to find stable employment while doing nothing to help them to become permanently employed. I’m urging @USDA Sec Sonny Perdue to withdraw the proposal.”

The tweet linked to a press release from Manchin explaining his position on the proposal, which would give states less flexibility on enforcing work requirements for SNAP beneficiaries. Manchin and several dozen senators from both parties expressed opposition to the proposal.

We won’t address the pros and cons of the Trump administration proposal here, but we did wonder if almost one of every five people in West Virginia rely on SNAP.

We checked with experts and looked at the data, and it turns out that Manchin was pretty close to the mark.

In February 2019, the most recent month for which full data is available, West Virginia had 314,042 SNAP beneficiaries. Meanwhile, the state’s estimated population for 2018, according to the Census Bureau, was 1,805,832.

That works out to 17.4 percent of state residents, or a bit lower than the 19 percent figure Manchin cited.

Our ruling

Manchin said, “19% of WVians rely on SNAP, but proposed changes would take food assistance from those struggling to find stable employment while doing nothing to help them to become permanently employed.”

The percentage Manchin cited is a little high, but it’s close. We rate his statement Mostly True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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