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Fact-check: Did Opioid Overdose Deaths in West Virginia Fall by 8.5%?

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This Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017 photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen in New York. Bills seeking to tax opioids have been introduced in Alaska, California, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and West Virginia. Nearly all of them have been introduced since 2017. Photo: AP Photo/Patrick Sison

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., offered a note of optimism about her state’s struggle with opioid addiction in a Jan. 22 tweet.

Capito tweeted, “Thanks to successful federal, state, and local efforts, preliminary statistics show opioid overdose deaths are down 8.5% in West Virginia. Awesome news!”

Thanks to successful federal, state, and local efforts, preliminary statistics show opioid overdose deaths are down 8.5% in West Virginia. Awesome news! https://t.co/uICcVlU7vZ— Shelley Moore Capito (@SenCapito) January 22, 2019

Is this statistic correct? Capito’s office did not respond to several inquiries, but we were able to find data that addresses the question.

Her tweet links to a USA Today article about newly released data on opioids published the same day as the tweet. Accompanying that article is a link to a related article that summarizes the state-by-state data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the breakdown, West Virginia’s predicted 12-month number for overdose deaths from all drugs fell from 1,047 in 2017 to 958 in 2018. That’s a decrease of 8.5 percent, as Capito said.

However, we should note a couple caveats.

First, a different cut of the CDC data actually shows even stronger declines in West Virginia. Preliminary, 12-month statewide data for overdose deaths shows an 18.7 percent decline for reported deaths between July 2017 and July 2018, and a 32 percent decline for predicted deaths over the same period.

Second, the 8.5 percent decline refers to overdose deaths from all drugs, not “opioid overdose deaths,” as Capito said.

The report doesn’t break down the data for opioid deaths by state. However, other data shows patterns for different drugs, and those serve to complicate Capito’s optimism.

A CDC report detailing annual figures for 2016 and 2017 found that in West Virginia, there was a decrease in prescription opioid overdose deaths by almost 13 percent between those two years. However, during the same time period, the deaths from all opioids, including heroin and methadone, rose more than 14 percent, and the death rates from synthetic opioids other than methadone increased by more than 42 percent.

In other words, a reduction in the deaths from prescription opioids masked how fast deaths from all opioids and synthetic opioids rose over that period.

“The opioid overdose epidemic continues to worsen and evolve because of the continuing increase in deaths involving synthetic opioids,” the CDC reported, according to a Dec. 28, 2018 article in the Register Herald of Beckley, W.Va.Our ruling

Capito tweeted, “Thanks to successful federal, state, and local efforts, preliminary statistics show opioid overdose deaths are down 8.5% in West Virginia.”

This number appears in a USA Today article that summarized CDC data, and other CDC data shows even sharper declines. That’s the good news.

However, Capito misidentified the figure as opioid overdose deaths specifically, rather than overdose deaths from all drugs. In addition, a more detailed analysis shows that while prescription opioid overdose deaths are down, overdose deaths from synthetic opioids are up. This suggests a more complicated outlook for the state’s overall overdose problem.

We rate the statement Half True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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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Fact Check

Fact-check: Does West Virginia Trail its Neighbors in STEM Graduates?

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Is West Virginia trailing its neighbors in science, technology, engineering and math in higher education? West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee said so during his State of the University address on March 19.

“Our state has fewer science, technology, engineering and math graduates than any neighboring state,” Gee said.

We decided to see if Gee was correct. We defined a “neighboring state” as one that shares a border with West Virginia: Maryland, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.

To support his assertion, Gee’s office referred us to a website run by a corporate-location consulting firm called the Site Selection Group. The site provides statistics for STEM degrees conferred in 2016.

Using raw numbers of graduates, Gee is correct: West Virginia conferred 4,912 STEM degrees, which is smaller than the neighboring five states. The second-smallest was Kentucky, with 8,252 degrees.

However, looking just at raw numbers of graduates is misleading because West Virginia has a smaller population than any of the other states. To cancel out the effect of population, we also looked at the percentage of all degrees conferred in the state that were for STEM fields.

On this measure, West Virginia ranks last among nearby states, too, though the comparison is closer. (We used data from the federal Department of Education that combines associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctorates conferred in each state for 2015-2016.)

We found that 16 percent of West Virginia’s degrees came in STEM fields, close to — but behind — Virginia at 17 percent and Kentucky, Ohio, and Pennsylvania at 18 percent. Maryland was the clear leader with 23 percent.

Courtesy: PolitiFact

Our ruling

Gee said, “Our state has fewer science, technology, engineering, and math graduates than any neighboring state.” He’s right both on the raw numbers and as a percentage of all degrees granted, though measuring by percentage, it’s a pretty close competition.

We rate the statement True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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