Fact-check: W.Va. Home to Zero Billionaire’s Despite Joe Manchin’s ‘Concerns’ about Billionaire Tax Proposal

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks at a commencement ceremony for nursing students from West Virginia Junior College on April 20, 2018, at Chestnut Ridge Church, in Morgantown. Photo: Jesse Wright/100 Days in Appalachia
U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., speaks at a commencement ceremony for nursing students from West Virginia Junior College on April 20, 2018, at Chestnut Ridge Church, in Morgantown. Photo: Jesse Wright/100 Days in Appalachia

In a recent tweet, David Gura, a broadcast journalist currently with NPR, tweeted Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., about a seeming irony of one his stances in the hard-fought battle over a key element of President Joe Biden’s agenda.

After word emerged that Manchin had thrown cold water on a “billionaire’s tax” proposal by some of his Democratic colleagues, Gura said in an Oct. 27 tweet: “FUN FACT: West Virginia is home to zero billionaires.”

Is he right that West Virginia has no billionaires? The best available data suggests that it’s the case currently.

Why did Gura send a snarky tweet?

The tweet’s roots come from the positions Manchin has taken in Democrats’ quest to enact their agenda, a process in which the senator has regularly irritated some of his colleagues.

Biden has taken a two-track approach to his federal spending and tax agenda. On Nov. 5, the House joined the Senate in passing an infrastructure bill that would allocate more than $500 billion in new funding on roads, bridges, transit, rail, waterways, airports, the electric grid and broadband. This measure secured bipartisan support in both chambers, and Manchin was a key figure in crafting it.

The second portion of Biden’s agenda is a stand-alone proposal that includes a variety of safety-net measures and other progressive priorities. The president and congressional leaders split off the infrastructure bill from these proposals — such as an extended child tax credit, universal pre-kindergarten, Medicare coverage for hearing aids and provisions to fight climate change — because they expected to win little if any support from Republicans for the latter. 

If this second bill is to pass, Manchin’s support will be crucial, since Democrats will need each of their 50 members in the Senate to vote for it. This reality has produced a months-long back-and-forth between Manchin and more progressive members of his party in both chambers. Time and again, Manchin has signaled his opposition to certain progressive proposals, making him a major face of the debate.

One of the ideas that Manchin expressed concerns about is a “billionaire’s tax” that would be used to balance out the new expenditures in the bill. 

The 107-page proposal would have taxed the unrealized gains on the value of billionaires’ liquid assets, such as stocks, bonds and cash. It would affect an estimated 700 taxpayers.

On Oct. 27, Manchin criticized the idea, telling reporters, “I don’t like the connotation that we’re targeting different people,” saying that billionaires “create a lot of jobs and invest a lot of money and give a lot to philanthropic pursuits.”

So the point of Gura’s tweet is that Manchin wasn’t even standing up for his constituents with that position, since West Virginia has no billionaires. (Manchin’s office did not respond to an inquiry for this article.)

Does West Virginia have any billionaires?

Gura did not respond to inquiries for this article, but he attached a Forbes article to his tweet as evidence for his claim. 

The Forbes article, which was published in April 2021, said that “seven states don’t have any billionaire residents that Forbes could find: Alabama, Alaska, Delaware, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Vermont and West Virginia.”

The article went on to say that “Jim Justice, the governor of West Virginia, used to be a billionaire but was revealed in March 2021 to have borrowed $850 million from Greensill Capital, a U.K. based lender that has filed for insolvency.” (An earlier Forbes article provided more detail on how Justice lost his billionaire status.)

Forbes is widely considered the main source for information on the holdings of wealthy Americans because such data is generally not public and requires journalistic digging and estimation. So it’s reasonable for Gura to point to sourcing in Forbes for this particular statistic.

Justice’s family has long been involved in businesses ranging from coal to farming to timber, and he expanded them when he took over. Justice also purchased the Greenbrier resort in his home state in 2009. By the time he won the governorship in 2016 (as a Democrat, before switching parties in 2017), Justice was running some 100 different companies.

But Justice’s coal business has faced financial challenges as coal has suffered from a combination of competition from natural gas and decisions by utilities to phase out coal generation over concerns about carbon emissions and their role in climate change.

Justice has also grappled with a torrent of lawsuits and legal penalties. PolitiFact West Virginia has reported that Justice has been sued at least 600 times for not paying his bills. There were at least 32 specific lawsuits in which Justice’s companies have come to owe $500,000 (Justice’s office did not respond to inquiries for this article.)

In its most recent wealth rankings, Forbes estimated Justice’s net worth at $503.4 million as of Nov. 9, so by their data, he has not regained his billionaire status. The financial holdings of the wealthy can change on a moment-to-moment basis due to volatility in stock valuations, so it’s conceivable that the value of Justice’s holdings could once again exceed the $1 billion mark.

Our ruling

Gura said, “FUN FACT: West Virginia is home to zero billionaires.”

Forbes, the entity that most closely tracks the wealth of the richest Americans, wrote in April that Justice had recently fallen out of the billionaire’s club, and that the state has no other billionaires. And the most recent estimate by Forbes pegged Justice’s net worth at barely over half a billion. So Gura’s statement is correct.

We rate the statement True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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