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Session’s First Week Was A Notable One

The start of the 2022 60-day session of the West Virginia Legislature will certainly go down as one of the most memorable of my journalism career, both for good and ill.

Let’s start with the obvious: there was no State of the State address. Gov. Jim Justice announced Tuesday night just before midnight he tested positive for COVID-19.

Instead, Justice provided written remarks to the Legislature Wednesday evening. The state Constitution requires the governor to send a message to the Legislature giving details about the condition of the state, as well as the budget bill for the next fiscal year.

I’m unsure when past governors started giving in-person speeches to the Legislature, what we know today as the State of the State address, but I feel safe in saying that the tradition is most likely 100 years old.

I know in the case of the State of the Union, the president’s annual address, it was also sent to Congress in written form for a long time. According to the U.S. House of Representatives, the body that traditionally invites the president to give an address to a joint session of Congress, Presidents George Washington and John Adams gave their required messages in person.

President Thomas Jefferson started the tradition of sending written messages, a tradition that lasted until President Woodrow Wilson, who began in-person addresses to Congress again in 1913. I suspect many states followed suit with their own versions of the State of the Union, including West Virginia.

But with that said, even last year during the first legislative session since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and with vaccines still being relatively new, Justice gave a State of the State speech. So, sending written remarks certainly is an historic moment.

Justice traditionally has no prepared remarks. The governors I have covered (Joe Manchin, Earl Ray Tomblin) delivered speeches prepared ahead of time, with reporters having embargoed copies that allowed us to quickly write stories to meet deadlines. Justice usually speaks off-the-cuff, requiring me to record his remarks and run them through a transcription program.

So, with Justice canceling the State of the State address and with the Constitution requiring a submitted message, the governor’s staff had to scramble and write something. The document is just barely five-pages long.

Aside from the usual praise of successes over his more than five years as governor, it mostly focuses on Wednesday’s huge economic development announcements, his statistically flat $4.645 billion general revenue budget, and push for approval of a fourth COVID-19 vaccine booster shot.

I found the message short on any new bills the governor plans to introduce or any new initiatives. Again, staff had to throw this together at the last minute. Also, I understand that once the governor gets better and is COVID-free, he still wants to give a State of the State-style address to the Legislature. It’s possible he may be holding some things back so he can be the one to talk about them.

Then again, according to the briefing media received from the Department of Revenue Wednesday, the only new expenditures for the next fiscal year included in the proposed budget are the 5% pay raise for public employees and $41 million for court-mandated changes to inmate medical care. So, if other bills or initiatives are coming, they must have no additional costs.

Justice Chief of Staff Brian Abraham was very candid with me and other members of the media Wednesday that the governor is having a hard time with COVID. He is fully vaccinated and boosted. However, he also is 70, and he’s not shy in acknowledging he is a big man, both tall and wide. I don’t presume to know his specific health issues, but one can make some logical inferences. Someone like Justice who gets COVID, fully vaccinated and boosted or not, is going to have a hard time.

For the moment, he is resting at his Lewisburg home. Unfortunately, we in the media have to think further down the road and consider certain scenarios that, knock on wood, we hope never happen. I don’t plan to go into all the scenarios, as that’s a bit dark. However, I do think it’s a fair question to ask what might happen if Justice has to be hospitalized.

In the line of succession in the state Constitution, if the governor should be incapacitated, Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, is next in line. He holds the honorary title of lieutenant governor, though there is no such thing as a lieutenant governor. The Constitution states “…the president of the Senate shall act as governor until the vacancy is filled, or the disability removed…”

Things get a little confusing from there. As I said, lieutenant governor is an honorary title, not a real one. Heaven forbid, if Blair would have to head to the first floor and sit in the big chair temporarily, his title would be “Senate President Acting as Governor,” or “acting governor” on second reference, because there is also no such title as “acting governor.”

The last time this happened, it was when former governor Joe Manchin resigned after winning the special election to replace the late Robert C. Byrd as U.S. Senator in 2010. Then-Senate President Tomblin became the Senate President Acting as Governor (or SPAAGERT as we liked to joke back in the day).

This created a new problem: you can’t have one person presiding over both the executive and legislative branches of government, but only the Senate president can be the acting governor. The Senate fixed this by creating the position of Acting Senate President. Jeff Kessler, former Marshall County Democratic senator, filled this function until Tomblin won a special election for governor, and Kessler was elected as the Senate president.

In closing, we now have a new steel mill coming to West Virginia that uses an electric arc furnace. We have a manufacturer of electric school buses coming. Lawmakers are seriously considering eliminating the prohibition on nuclear power in the state. And all of this has united Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

I’m just imagining the West Virginia Coal Association having a freak-out behind closed doors.

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