W.Va. Statehouse Reporter’s Notebook: Is the Governor In?

For my first column, I need to at least briefly introduce myself. My name is Steven Allen Adams and after more than five years away, I returned to journalism last week, covering West Virginia government for Ogden Newspapers, which includes The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register.

I’m going to be your guide to what is turning out to be a very turbulent time in West Virginia politics. As we’ve seen, especially this past week, there is no shortage of controversies to write about.

This column is a place for me to put the items that just can’t fit in my articles. My goal, like any good journalist, is to strive for objectivity, but you also might benefit from over a decade of experience I bring in both the fields of journalism and government. Feel free to write me at sadams@newsandsentinel.com, especially if you’ve got something good for me to look into.

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One of the biggest controversies brewing under the gold dome is the presence, or lack thereof, of Gov. Jim Justice at the Capitol.

Article 7 Section 1 of the state Constitution specifically says the Governor “shall reside at the seat of government during their terms of office.” Justice doesn’t do that. He’s also not at the Capitol very often, but when he does come in, he travels from his home in Greenbrier County, well over 100 miles away.

The Democratic minority leaders of both legislative chambers have asked the governor to show up or get out. “At a minimum, Gov. Justice should be at work — and if he can’t be bothered to come to the Capitol to do the job that the people of West Virginia elected him to do, then he should resign from office,” said House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison.

Del. Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, filed a writ of mandamus last week asking the courts to order Justice to follow the Constitution. “The constitution mandates that you work regularly at the seat of government,” Sponaugle said. “Gov. Justice has declared that he will only follow the constitution when it is convenient to him.”

Before you think this is just sour grapes against a Democratic-turned-Republican governor, House Finance chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, penned an op-ed also asking the governor to follow the Constitution.

“The bottom line is this: It’s time for Jim Justice to decide if he’s going to be a part-time governor while tending to his own businesses back home, or if he’s going to devote himself fully to the job to which he has been elected,” Nelson said. “Decisions are made by those who show up.”

For his part, Justice doesn’t deny any of the accusations about not spending time in Charleston. In a recent press conference, Justice says there is nothing that goes on in Charleston he doesn’t know about, he gets updates on his flip phone, and he saves the state money by not living in the mansion.

“If you would like me to just sit in there (referring to his office) and do what’s been done in the past, I’m not going to do that,” Justice said. “I don’t believe in wasting the state’s money.”

Fair enough, and a laudable goal. But is he really saving the state money by not living at the Governor’s Mansion? Sure, but not by a lot.

According to the State Budget Office, the cost of maintaining the mansion and its staff in Justice’s first year as governor was $571,382. When the fiscal year kicks in July 1, the cost decreases to $540,427. That’s a 5.26 percent decrease.

The mansion cost for the last year of former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s term was $588,536. When compared to Justice’s fiscal year 2019 budget, that’s only an 8.17 percent savings. Tomblin also didn’t hold a lot of events at the mansion and even went home to Chapmanville on the weekends, but you could also find him either working in his office in the Capitol or walking to and from State Police SUVs on his way to meetings.

The founders of the state knew what they were doing with requiring the governor to reside in the seat of government. It’s never been about living in the mansion. In fact, according to West Virginia Archives and History, there was no governor’s mansion before 1893. Before that, a governor had to find his own place to live. Other state constitutional officers have the same requirement and either buy houses or rent in Charleston.

The framers of West Virginia’s constitution created the Legislature as a part-time entity. It meets only for 60 days each year unless called in for special sessions. Delegates and senators are citizens with day jobs who give their time each year to craft laws. But the governor is a full-time position. It’s his job to run the state, with the help of his cabinet secretaries and the Board of Public Works.

I don’t think anyone expects Justice to chain himself to the desk, but I can’t imagine voters thought he would try to do the job from his decade-old flip phone relying solely on phone calls. Name me another governor in any state who telecommutes to their capitol exclusively?

Justice wants us to take him at his word that he knows all that is going on in his government. That requires a leap of faith, and to paraphrase the Bible, faith without works is dead.

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