With the help of Jeff Jenkins, Chris Lawrence and Brad McElhinny, here is part two of my list of the top 12 West Virginia news stories of 2018.
6. Controversy at Commerce, Rise program: When Governor Jim Justice took office, one of his most notable hires was successful businessman Woody Thrasher as state Commerce Secretary. However, Thrasher fell out of favor with Justice and the Governor fired him. Several other Commerce employees either left or were forced out. Justice blamed Thrasher and Commerce for the glacial pace of Rise West Virginia, the long term flood relief effort. The program was woefully behind on getting flood victims into permanent housing. Justice put National Guard Adjutant General James Hoyer in charge and quickly the pace of the long-term flood effort picked up.
5. Financial rebound: West Virginia’s economy has consistently been a victim of the boom-bust cycle based on energy demand and prices. As a result, tax collections can vary widely, making it difficult for state government to balance the budget, while meeting the many demands for pay raises, services and infrastructure improvements. Governor Justice promised during his campaign that, if elected, the state’s economy would take off like a rocket ship. One might question the metaphor, but there was significant improvement in 2018 as the red ink was washed away by budget surpluses. The fiscal year ended June 30th with a $20 million surplus and tax collections are running $141 million ahead of estimates so far this fiscal year.
4. Drug crisis persists: Federal, state and local officials, community leaders and first responders continued their multi-front battle against the state’s drug crisis in 2018. The problem was complicated by a surge in availability and use of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more powerful that heroin. There was some evidence during the past year that the rate of increase in drug overdose deaths was beginning to slow. However, it’s likely that when the final numbers are in over 1,000 West Virginians will have died this year from drug overdoses.
3. Manchin wins tough re-election: Republicans targeted Democratic incumbent Senator Joe Manchin for defeat in 2018. Manchin was viewed as vulnerable because Donald Trump won West Virginia by 42 points. The Republican Primary to see who would face Manchin was a high profile race with six candidates, including the surprise entry of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship. Fox News hosted a nationally televised debate in Morgantown featuring Blankenship, Congressman Evan Jenkins and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey. Morrisey won the primary, but his campaign to unseat Manchin fell just short, despite multiple appearances in the state by Trump. Manchin won 50 percent to 46 percent.
2. Teacher strike: Public school teachers and service workers walked off the job on February 23rd in protest of a pay raise of just four percent over three years and to call attention to their concerns over their health insurance costs. Picketers shut down schools in all 55 counties and descended on the State Capitol. They jammed the corridors, chanting and singing, bringing the legislative session to a virtual halt. Finally, Governor Justice and legislative leaders relented under the pressure, granting teachers, service workers and public employees a raise averaging five percent for one year. The Administration also created a task force charged with coming up with long term solutions to funding for the Public Employee Insurance Agency. The strike ended March 7, but the walkout became an inspiration for frustrated teachers in several other states to walk out.
1. Supreme Court embroiled in controversy: Investigations into spending practices of the state Supreme Court and the subsequent impeachment of Justices dominated West Virginia news in 2018. It started with media reports in 2017 about taxpayer dollars spent on luxury office furnishings, including $32,000 for a couch, but spread to include misuse of state property and lying to investigators. The House of Delegates impeached Justices Allen Loughry, Robin Davis, Margaret Workman and Beth Walker. Justice Menis Ketchum avoided impeachment by resigning and pleading guilty to personal use of a state vehicle. Loughry was indicted and convicted on 11 counts of fraud, witness tampering and lying to investigators. Davis announced her retirement just as the House was voting to impeach. The Senate acquitted Walker, but censured her. A substitute Supreme Court blocked Workman’s senate trial citing constitutional issues and errors in the House impeachment. The ordeal severely damaged the reputation of the Court and contributed to voters overwhelmingly approving a Constitutional Amendment giving the Legislature oversight of the Court’s budget.