Justice speaks

West Virginia Governor Jim Justice delivers his fourth State of the State address in the House Chambers at the State Capitol in Charleston Wednesday, Jan. 8.

CHARLESTON — In his fourth State of the State address following the opening day of the 2020 legislative session Wednesday, Governor Jim Justice asked for financial support for ongoing problems in West Virginia, including the child welfare and drug overdose crises, while also encouraging continued support for the state’s coal and natural gas industries.

Drugs “could cannibalize this state but we’re making progress,” he said.

Justice, a Republican, said he is ordering Jeff Sandy, cabinet secretary of the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, to form a new narcotics intelligence unit at the state Fusion Center to combat drug transport into the state, and asked lawmakers for $1.9 million to fund it. According to that agency, the Fusion Center is where “multiple levels of law enforcement, public safety agencies and private entities share resources, expertise and information.”

Justice said drug dealers pick certain West Virginia communities “because they know you’re soft and you can’t catch them,” and added that “anybody that is trying to come into our state with drugs, we are going to bust your ass.”

Justice is recommending lawmakers allocate an additional $26.4 million to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services for child protective services. DHHR officials, pointing to the addiction crisis as reason for the increase, have said the state has the highest per capita rate of children in state custody in the country. According to DHHR, as of December 2019, 7,034 children were in state custody.

Meanwhile, according to a lawsuit two advocacy groups, A Better Childhood and Disability Rights of West Virginia, filed in October, in January 2019, 213 CPS worker positions were vacant, amounting to a 45 percent vacancy rate among caseworkers.

The lawsuit stated that while The Child Welfare League of America, a coalition of private and public agencies that develops child welfare policies, had recommended CPS workers shouldn’t handle more than 12 to 15 clients at a time, it “is not uncommon” for West Virginia CPS workers to handle 50 cases.

There is support for increasing CPS worker pay in the Legislature. Monday, during interim legislative meetings, lawmakers in the joint Health Committee, made up of members of both the House of Delegates and state Senate, recommended a bill to the rest of the Legislature that would, among other things, increase CPS worker pay and allow them to file grievances when assigned more than 25 cases.

Justice, who left the state’s Office of Drug Control policy without an official director for eight months and didn’t appoint a Governor’s Council on Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment until nearly two years into his term, also touted existing efforts to address the drug crisis, including the Jobs and Hope program, a job training program he announced during the State of the State last year, calling it “Jim’s Dream,” at the time.

“We launched it in October,” he said. “We’ve had 1,200 referrals. There’s all kinds of stuff that’s happening and it’s working.”

In September of 2019, Justice sent a statement saying it was “heartening” to see that the number of overdose deaths had appeared to decline from 2018 to 2019, from 1,017 to 952 drug deaths.

In 2016, the year he was elected, there were 890, according to DHHR.

Justice, a coal company owner himself, proposed an alternative use for coal, turning it into carbon fiber, and also urged policy-makers to continue to look for “ways to ensure that our coal miners are going to have their jobs.”

“We just just can’t hardly compete and it’s really tough,” he said.

In the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers voted to cut the severance tax for steam coal, a major contributor to climate change. Economists continue to predict long-term declines in the industry. In special session in July, lawmakers rushed through a bill that cuts $12.5 million in annual state revenue to bail out a bankrupt company in hopes of keeping a coal-fired power plant, the Pleasants Power Station, running.

Justice also expressed excitement for what he and other state officials have dubbed the upcoming “Appalachian Petrochemical Renaissance.” Justice has asked state officials, including the head of the state Department of Environmental Protection, to work to recruit companies involved in converting natural gas to plastics to West Virginia.

Environmental groups have said they remain concerned about what new pollutants the industry could discharge into the air and water needed by people living around potential underground storage facilities and cracker plants, and potential explosions due to volatile chemicals in underground storage facilities.

“There may be people here that love West Virginia as much as me, but there’s nobody here that loves it more,” Justice said.

Justice said, “I love the outdoors more than good sense,” but didn’t offer any specific environmental protection policy suggestions.

During a budget presentation earlier in the day, Mark Muchow, deputy secretary for the state Department of Revenue, said the budget office is predicting a 2.3 percent decline in revenue, about $109 million, from fiscal year 2020 to fiscal year 2021.

He noted the previous year was particularly strong, in part due to pipeline construction and demand for exports of metallurgical coal.

“Basically it’s like throwing something up in the air,” he said. “It’s going to come back down a little bit. So this year, revenues will probably be the second-highest ever. But it’s comparing it against a record year, last year.”

He said they aim to make up for that and “flat line” the budget in part from savings resulting from surplus in Medicaid and other one-time expenditures.

“The big matter of concern for us is natural gas prices,” he said. “It varies week to week, day to day.”

“The low natural gas prices are playing havoc on the coal industry as well,” he added.

Justice also asked lawmakers for $19.7 million to eliminate the waiting list – currently 1,060 people, he said – for the intellectual/developmental disabilities waiver, a program that helps people with those disabilities receive services at home and stay out of residential facilities.

People on that waiting list with severe disabilities, such as spina bifida or severe autism, have been waiting up to four and half years for the services. Some are housed out of state, or at in-state psychiatric hospitals.

After expressing hope that no sanctuary cities, which offer refuge to immigrants who entered the country illegally, come to West Virginia, Justice addressed a recent photo that showed trainees in the state Department of Corrections making Nazi salutes, saying “on my watch, there is no place for hate and there’s no place for anti-semitism.”

Email: ebeck@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @3littleredbones

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