By Phil Kabler
For The West Virginia Press Association
As legislators returned to Charleston for September interim meetings, the Senate met to confirm 137 Justice appointees, including Byrd White as commissioner of Highways – over concerns on whether he is qualified to hold that office.
“I just feel comfortable I meet all those requirements,” White, a longtime friend and business associate of Gov. Jim Justice, told the Senate Confirmations Committee.
State law requires the commissioner to be “a person who is experienced in highway planning, finance, construction, maintenance, management and supervision.”
White, an accountant who has worked in a variety of positions, most recently in the state Tax Division, and prior to that, managing a country club that Justice owned, said he felt he met all six qualifications, if not necessarily in jobs directed related to highways.
“I’ve managed groups of five people, and I’ve managed companies of hundreds,” he said.
White also told senators he had moved to an apartment in Charleston’s East End in order to comply with another requirement in state law that the Highways commissioner reside in Charleston.
White, whose home is in Beaver, Raleigh County, said he had only recently learned of the residency requirement, and called on the Legislature to repeal it.
“I hope you will see fit to change that, because it does restrict the governor’s choices on who he can pick, but it is the law, and I will follow it,” he said.
With his confirmation as Highways commissioner, White – who also serves as state Transportation Secretary – will receive a bump in salary from $95,000 to $120,000, under the law.
Senate confirmations was the last act of a special session on education issues that technically began back on March 10, and had convened periodically in June and July.
Before the Senate adjourned sine die, bringing the truncated special session to a close, Sen. Greg Boso, R-Nicholas, announced he was resigning from the Senate, saying he has accepted a new job that will require out-of-state travel that would force him to miss multiple legislative days.
(The House of Delegates had previously adjourned sine die back on July 23.)
During legislative interim meetings:
— Highways was a key topic for two interim committees, meeting jointly to hear an update from Division of Highways deputy commissioner Jimmy Wriston on efforts to repair crumbling secondary roads around the state.
Wriston said a $139 million cash infusion from 2018-19 state budget surplus was a start, but said it will take many more years of increased funding for Highways to improve the state’s 36,000 miles of roadways.
“The Blue Ribbon Commission report told you we need another $750 million to maintain that 36,000 miles of road,” Wriston told interim committees on Transportation Accountability and on Infrastructure. “That’s annually. $750 million annually.”
Wriston was referring to the Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways, a panel of experts assembled in 2012 to come up with long-term solutions for the state highways system. The commission concluded that in order to adequately complete, repair and maintain the state road system, the state would need to roughly double the $1.1 billion annually it spends on roads.
Whether there will be additional funding for Highways next year remains to be seen. Deputy Revenue Secretary Mark Muchow told legislators that, after enjoying a 12 percent spike in state tax collections last year, 2019-20 collections are on pace to have a 2 percent budget shortfall.
For the first two months of the budget year, a downturn in coal exports and natural gas prices, along with the loss of 4,000 natural gas pipeline construction jobs, has the state running a $49.8 million deficit.
“I’d say it’s a greater than 50 percent chance of ending up below the (revenue) estimate for the year,” he said.
— Jeremiah Samples, deputy director for the Department of Health and Human Resources, shared what he called “gut-wrenching” statistics for the numbers of runaways from the state foster care system.
As of mid-September, he said there were 72 children missing from the system, and that for the year, the state has had a total of 651 runaways – primarily teenaged boys who fled group homes or schools, frequently in attempts to return to their families.
He said the state’s opioid drug epidemic is overwhelming the foster care system.
“Has the state been able to keep up with the crisis? The answer is no,” Samples said.