No, Biden isn’t a tyrant, and yes, the mandate is legal

President Joe Biden took a significant step in combatting the COVID-19 virus this week by utilizing the significant amount of executive power his office permits.  However, is it a wise policy?  Does it violate constitutional rights?  Is Biden acting like a king or dictator?  These are a few of the questions worth exploring.

What exactly is the Biden administration doing?

President Biden delivering his message about vaccine mandates

The president’s role as chief executive requires him or her to carry out the laws passed by Congress.  When our legislative body creates a law, they sometimes purposely leave portions of it vague to allow the executive branch flexibility in how to best carry out the law.  For instance, with regard to the Social Security program, the law does not dictate in what way payments are made to recipients.  This allows executive branch officials to determine if they should send checks, use direct deposit, or even consider other digital programs.  The flexibility allows for efficient functioning of government.  This much is clear — when the law does not specify how a law should be enforced, it is the prerogative of the executive branch on how to enforce that law (provided they do not violate the Constitution in the process).  Presidents cannot simply give random orders unless they are based on an already existing law.  They cannot enforce what does not exist.

In this instance, President Biden is utilizing the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to implement policies based on the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.  This law established OSHA and empowered the Secretary of Labor and the Director of OSHA to create policies under the law to ensure the safety of the workplace in the United States.  Since the Secretary of Labor works at the pleasure of the president, this person has a responsibility to develop policies which the president wants.  

In this case, the Secretary and OSHA will be writing new regulations which

  • Require all private employers with 100 or more employees to ensure those employees have received vaccination for COVID-19 or those unvaccinated employees must produce a negative COVID test one each week.  This new rule is expected to affect nearly 100 million workers in the country.  The penalty for non-compliance will be $14,000 per offense.
  • All healthcare facilities which receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement from the federal government must have its employees vaccinated.
  • Employees of federal education programs such as Head Start or Department of Defense schools must receive a vaccine.

Additionally, President Biden ordered the Transit Security Administration (TSA) to increase fines for individuals who failed to wear masks and for those abusive towards flight attendants.  The federal government is also planning on allocating $2 billion for testing (rapid test and PCR).

Outside of the requirements, President Biden also asked for governors of individual states to establish mask and vaccine mandates for their public education systems.

Is there any precedent for a vaccine mandate?

The United States has faced a few similar situations in the past.  In the early 20th century, Massachusetts enacted legislation which required vaccination for smallpox for all adult citizens and fined those who refused.  Henning Jacobson, a Swedish immigrant, refused and appealed the matter to courts, claiming the Massachusetts law violated his 14th Amendment rights under the Due Process Clause.  Jacobson’s argument contended the state’s action in mandating a vaccine deprived him of his ‘liberty.’  In the Due Process Clause, the state must demonstrate some rational basis for why they would take deprive someone of a freedom.  In this instance, Massachusetts claimed that eradicating smallpox and creating a better public health environment constituted a legitimate government interest in mandating a vaccine.

In Jacobson v. Massachusetts (1905), the United States Supreme Court ruled that the state legitimately held policing powers, which included, “… such reasonable regulations established directly by legislative enactment as will protect the public health and the public safety.”  The Court stated that issues such as a public health crisis, particularly the increasing cases of smallpox at the time, override the liberties of Jacobson.  

Justice John Marshall Harlan also articulated a key principle which many Americans forget about the freedoms granted to us.  Harlan wrote,

… the liberty secured by the Constitution of the United States to every person within its jurisdiction does not import an absolute right in each person to be, at all times and in all circumstances, wholly freed from restraint. There are manifold restraints to which every person is necessarily subject for the common good. On any other basis organized society could not exist with safety to its members.

Despite what people might want to believe, there is no absolute freedom in our society

In 1922, the Supreme Court also upheld the constitutionality of mandatory vaccines for public and private school students.  While states are under no obligation to create such vaccine mandates, the Court noted that such mandates did not violate the Constitution (see: Zucht v. King).  Society has long accepted vaccinations as a key aspect in public health and the fight against serious disease, and this is one of the reasons we haven’t seen a significant challenge to this concept in nearly a century.

Every state requires vaccinations for school, and West Virginia provides no exemptions for personal or religious belief. Required vaccinations are not new

Federal courts at all levels do not appear in any mood to overturn precedent.  Students at Indiana University filed suit after the school required a COVID-19 vaccine for all students and staff (with a few exceptions carved out).  A federal district court and the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Indiana held the authority to require the vaccines.  The Supreme Court turned down an appeal for an emergency injunction (which could have temporarily halted the mandate until the matter was resolved in its entirety).

The Biden administration’s new rules seem solidly grounded in legislation, and the president seems confident that any legal challenges would fail.  When asked about those potential legal challenges, Biden responded to critics, “Have at it.”  

Why is this happening now?

For the Biden administration, this seems to be a move that makes sense for a number of reasons.  First, the vaccination rates of Americans have plateaued over the last few months.  Despite financial incentives and massive public relations campaigns, states have struggled to increase vaccination rates. 

The unvaccinated Americans also have taken the position that they have seen what COVID-19 does and they don’t seem to mind the risk.  While doctors and other health care professionals recommend taking the vaccine, a substantial number of Americans don’t feel comfortable taking it.  The stagnation in vaccination rates has led to the rise of the rise of the ‘delta’ variant of COVID.  The mutation of COVID makes it more difficult to defeat in the long term.  

Infections, hospitalizations, and deaths related to the virus are increasing, and this is a public health problem, obviously.  However, there is undoubtedly political calculus behind the vaccine mandates.  

President Biden and his administration have a razor thin majority in both houses of Congress right now, meaning their ability to pass legislation is limited.  Democrats are delicately trying to pass a bipartisan infrastructure deal while simultaneously threading a budget bill through Congress.  The Biden administration must deal decisively with problems which can be solved with executive action only.  They can solve this problem without Congress, so they must.  There’s no time to waste, particularly considering that the 2022 mid-term elections will be coming soon.

Democrats want to head into the 2022 mid-terms with legislative victories in their pocket and light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to solving the pandemic.  President Biden’s approval numbers have taken a hit with the American withdrawal from Afghanistan and COVID problems.  His average approval rating is trending in the high 40s, but that’s down significantly from the beginning of summer.  

The vaccine mandate is a calculated gamble to solve an important problem for the nation.  Is it a ‘make or break’ moment for Biden’s presidency?  No, but the political benefits outweigh the risks of not acting.  Within West Virginia, Governor Jim Justice is lamenting the rise in infections but he refuses to take any action as our state’s chief executive.  He has continually passed the buck to county and local administrations, causing significant confusion with absolutely no positive results. 

If the increase in vaccinations with these federal mandates can stymie the COVID problem, Biden will look incredibly good in the eyes of voters for taking decisive action at a key moment in the pandemic.  The people most likely to claim that Biden is a ‘tyrant’ who has overstepped his authority were never going to vote for him anyway.

Biden is not a tyrant, dictator, king, or any other authoritarian trope 

Americans have a strange way of viewing presidents, particularly ones who take strong executive actions.  The use of executive orders or government agency regulations to shape policy always tend to cause selective outrage.  Presidents from both parties utilize these as means of achieving their goals.  They are far more common than what people realize.  Yet, Americans only complain about them when it’s a political foe in the White House.  

Legislative bodies benefit from debate in lawmaking, and a slowed process.  However, situations exist in government where quick, decisive action is warranted.  Our chief executive needs that flexibility in responding to situations in such a manner.

The American presidency does more in permitting one single person to exercise power than any other democracy.  It fuses the role of head of state and head of government where most nations divide those roles.  In his famous Federalist #70, Alexander Hamilton wrote that our republic needed an ‘energetic’ president for effective administration of the laws.  The energy included several characteristics, including unity (a single person acting as executive) and competent powers

Powers exhibited by the president, whether Biden or Trump or anyone else, must still obey the Constitution and comply with other existing federal laws.  Their actions are subject to review by the courts, and they are ultimately responsible to the people.

Hamilton’s work also contained wisdom which explains why Republicans are currently frustrated with Biden’s unilateral action. He wrote, “Men often oppose a thing, merely because they have had no agency in planning it, or because it may have been planned by those whom they dislike.”  

Republicans will attempt to seize upon any opportunity to gain seats in Congress and the majority in either house.  And I suppose that’s part of what the minority party does, particularly when the difference in the number of seats in both houses is so small.  A person can question the wisdom of President Biden’s policy.  But to suggest the president is somehow crowning himself king over the nation or a tyrant?  This is an attempt to play on the fears of Americans.  Don’t fall for it.  

I find it equally frustrating that Republicans have taken their hypocrisy to new levels when they have suggested for the entirety of President Biden’s term that he is confused, senile, or incompetent, but now they want Americans to believe that same crazy old codger is somehow launching a secret Marxist takeover of the nation. Could that senile old man have plotted all of this in his fragile mental state? I am convinced that both major political parties in the United States have serious flaws, but Republican leadership continually embarrasses itself in their quest to gain power.

The COVID-19 virus killed 4.6 million people worldwide in the 18 months. The deaths show no signs of relenting unless we take drastic action. In 2020 alone, nearly 378,000 Americans died from this virus, making it the third leading cause of death (behind cancer and heart disease). This nation created a vaccine to tamp down a deadly plague and the refusal to take it is harming society as a whole. We have the ability to end this and return to life as normal.

Critics would argue that government doesn’t dictate what people eat or ingest, which often cause heart disease and cancer, the two leading causes of death for Americans. This is true, but those diseases do not easily spread to other human beings.

President Biden was correct when he stated, “We’ve been patient. But our patience is wearing thin, and your refusal has cost all of us.” It’s time to end this. If you’re eligible for a vaccine, take the vaccine. It’s safe, it’s effective, and it saves lives.

Five Contradictions of West Virginia

“Pleasing, tho’ dreadful.” 

— An early explorer of West Virginia, noting in his journal about the geography of the region

If you live, work, or have roots in West Virginia, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to presume that you possess an understanding of the culture. There are so many aspects of the state to love and appreciate.  However, I want to point out five contradictions about West Virginia which hold the state back.

West Virginians are largely pro-life, but don’t seem to support children

A sizable portion of West Virginians believe abortion should not be legally permissible, and I would contend that this, by itself, is a defensible position.  But the contradiction here lies in the refusal to support a number of policies which benefit children.  One of West Virginia’s most significant problems is its inability, or unwillingness, to care for its children.  

In a previous post, I referenced the critical issues of student homelessness, grandparents raising grandchildren, and an inadequate foster care system.  These amount to a crisis situation and I cannot reconcile how its citizens take a hard pro-life position when they see such a dire need for the care of children.

This is a terrifying graph to think about for West Virginians

The most recent data demonstrates that more than 10,000 students in West Virginia are classified as homeless (about 4% of the entire student population).  As of this month’s figures, foster parents house approximately 6,500 children, including almost 2,000 labeled as in ‘therapeutic foster care.’ 

Social scientists have created a metric to better assess the well-being of children, a test to gauge adverse childhood experiences, or ‘ACE.’  It consists of 10 yes or no questions which help researchers understand the impact of traumas on a child as they become adults.  Anyone with a score of ‘4’ or more on the ACE test is:

  • 12 times more likely to attempt suicide 
  • 10 times more likely to use illegal drugs which are injected
  • 7 times more likely to become an alcoholic 
  • 2 times more likely to become a smoker 

The effects of childhood trauma increase the risk for a myriad of other poor behavioral choices, backed by peer reviewed studies.

In West Virginia, 13.8% of adults reported they had a childhood with four or more ACEs. Additionally, West Virginia ranks 7th in the nation for percentage of people with an ACE score of 2 or greater (a staggering 25%).  Though speculation, I don’t find it too difficult to believe that the children of today are any better off than previous generations.

West Virginians seem to despise the government in Washington, D.C., but benefit from the federal government as much as anyone in the nation

West Virginians believe that policies from the nation’s capital should always be met with the most stringent skepticism.  Citizens always imagine a far away government official as the cause of their problems.  

A portion of the disdain towards Washington is rooted in the never ending political drama between Democrats and Republicans.  The GOP has consistently presented a message that Democrats, particularly at the federal level, have waged a ‘war on coal,’ will deprive people of religious freedoms, and want to rob citizens of their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.  The truthfulness of the message doesn’t matter because perception is reality here.

Somewhat related is the fascination people in this state have for the Confederacy and its rebellion during the Civil War.  Any small town has its share of Confederate battle flags.  

When the West Side community of Charleston moved to change the name of Stonewall Jackson Middle School, it met a bizarre level of resistance.  Even if I wanted to overlook the fact that black children make up the overwhelming majority of students attending the school, a school in West Virginia named for a Confederate general is ridiculous.  The birth of West Virginia occurred during the Civil War — on the side of the Union.  (Start a conversation about removing the statue of Stonewall Jackson from the Capitol grounds and watch citizens lose their minds.)  

Strangely, this hatred of the federal government is made in conjunction with the fact that our state benefits more from federal tax dollars than almost every other state in the union.  If you see the late Senator Robert Byrd’s name on a bridge, school, institution, or any other building, there’s a good chance he secured the federal funds for it.  No one objected, and for good reason.  

West Virginia ranks 9th in federal grant beneficiaries among the states, and this doesn’t include the entire gamut individualized programs.  In regard to those programs:

Per capita, West Virginia ranks 2nd in the nation in recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, more commonly known as ‘food stamps’), receiving almost $400,000,000 annually for recipients.

Currently, 28% of West Virginia’s citizens receive Medicaid or Children’s Heath Insurance (CHIPs).

For West Virginians receiving Medicare, the annual expenditure per beneficiary is an average of slightly above $10,000.  If someone would point out that Medicare is a program which we all pay into, consider that most recipients will draw out more in benefits than they ever pay into the program. 

It’s ironic that so many West Virginians are more than happy to reap the benefits of federal tax dollars while constantly degrading the government officials who enacted these policies and the bureaucratic employees who make sure those checks find their way to the mailboxes of West Virginians (and millions of Americans also).

West Virginians love coal, though it has plagued the people

The state has been one of the leading producers of coal, yet the individuals who benefitted the most from this important natural resource are not West Virginians.  Coal mining in the mid-20th century until now offered West Virginians a high paying salary they could earn as straight out of high school.  But the state as a whole forgot the bloody road that coal miners walked to secure those high paying jobs in the first place.  How many West Virginians toiled in mines for little pay or were the victims of violence from the mine owners?  Moreover, even after the coal miners secured better wages and working conditions, the balance of power still leaned heavily towards the mine owners.  Those mine owners reaped disproportionate financial benefits while the men who labored in coal mines literally worked themselves into an early grave.

How many men died from mining disasters which could have been prevented?  If that wasn’t enough of an issue, how many men suffered from physical injuries which dramatically reduced the quality of their lives?  This doesn’t account for the incidences of black lung, a particularly dreadful disease miners develop from years of working in close contact with coal dust.  Black lung dramatically reduces quality of life, has no cure, and is fatal.  

I respect the people who work in coal mines.  That job requires significant physical strength and mental fortitude, to go into the mines day after day for years.  But what I see as the great contradiction is the love affair the state has with coal when these miners have never received what they deserve.

You don’t need nearly as many employees to get that coal out of the ground

The mine owners do not reinvest in the communities, they fight any attempted increases on the coal severance tax, and most importantly, the bulk of them are absentee landlords.  For over a century, we have allowed corporate interests outside of the state to treat West Virginia like a third world country, using our natural resources and labor in exchange for scraps.

Historically, mine owners have little regard for the well being of their employees.  The mechanization of coal mines have taken more jobs from the hands of our people than any politician could dare to dream. They also have cannibalized bankrupted other coal corporations of their assets, while taking on none of their liabilities, notably the pensions of retired coal miners.

The nation’s trend towards natural gas and renewable energy will diminish the demand for coal.  The world will still need coal in short term and long term for the United States, but not nearly as much as it once did. 

Why does the state love coal when it has taken so much from the people and given so little in return?

West Virginians want economic development, but they do not wish to change

Politicians have long touted diversification of West Virginia’s economy as a priority in light of the decline of coal.  Yes, the state has done tremendous work in developing an amazing tourism industry.  However, there are other ways in which West Virginia can develop a more progressive attitude towards economic development.

West Virginia’s agricultural production has long been a strong component of the economy.  Adding marijuana to the agricultural output is projected to add nearly $190 million in revenue, increasing agricultural revenue by 25%.  Of course, the state’s tax coffers will benefit also, which can be used in a variety of ways to benefit the state.  The dangers of alcohol outweigh those of marijuana and the state has no problem allowing its sale. 

In addition to changes in agricultural, West Virginians do not value higher education, though studies demonstrate that a college education translates to increased lifetime earnings.  Only 20.3% of West Virginians hold a bachelor’s degree, the lowest percentage of any state in the nation. Bringing economic development includes valuing the education, which West Virginia does not.

Many West Virginians shun colleges as ‘elitist’ and they don’t respect the value of higher education.  State government continues to decrease funding of  institutions of higher education, including the Promise Scholarship. This demonstrates the priorities of West Virginia.  (Despite a skepticism of higher education, West Virginians have little problem turning out in large numbers for football and basketball games in Morgantown and Huntington.)

We care about moral values, but continually elect poor examples of those values

Often, our moral values are connected to our religious beliefs, and few states are as religious as West Virginia.  Christianity, specifically an evangelical brand of the faith, advocates that definitive right and wrong standards exist in the world.  A majority of West Virginians also believe this to be true.  Yet, the citizens here continue to elect individuals who flagrantly violate these standards.  West Virginia’s government currently contains some odd characters with significant failings —  including John Mandt, Mike Maroney, and Joe Jeffries — but they are only recent iterations of the political problems here. 

For those old enough to remember, former Governor Arch Moore’s third term in office led to guilty pleas for five felonies in federal court, including tax fraud, extortion, and obstruction of justice. Moore’s first two terms were no easier, with an indictment for extortion and constant rumors about misuse of campaign funds.  The allegations and guilty pleas never seemed to put a dent in Moore’s popularity with West Virginians.

In 2004, the FBI rooted out several corrupt long-time officials in Logan County through a sting operation which yielded nine convictions in vote buying schemes.  The practice of vote buying or knowledge of corruption was not regarded as a secret in this area.

Former Governor Bob Wise was involved in a sex scandal in 2003.  In 2016, the mayor of Clay liked a Facebook post referring to then First Lady Michelle Obama as an ‘ape in heels.’  Oh, and the public official in Clay County who made the Facebook post?  A year later she pleaded guilty to embezzling $18,000 from FEMA devoted to flood relief in the area. 

I know every state has its dullards and buffoons who somehow win elections, but if we care about the integrity of our state and moral values, shouldn’t we make morality the ‘floor’ for government officials?  The people in West Virginia have fallen into the trap of placing their preferred political party before values.

If West Virginia is going to talk about these things, it’s time to be about them.  We should take care of our children, and teach them that valuing certain moral traits means living them out to the best of our ability.  We don’t have to love coal or see it as the economic basis for the future.  The federal government isn’t the enemy,  and there are times when change isn’t such a bad thing.

Nobody likes a quitter — even in politics

“Voters quickly forget what a man says.”

— Richard Nixon

Politicians are always keenly aware that their tenure in office often hinges on the mood of the electorate.  But politicians have always understood that a scandal would end their career, or at the very least, put it on life support.  Government officials knew this was how the game was played.  A scandal means they fall on their sword and resign.  They embarrass the party, their state, the nation?  Time for them to move on.  Depending on the nature of the mistake, maybe he or she can score a second act after a few years of penance.

There are plenty of examples in the modern era of American politics.  Former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich (R-GA) resigned after an unethical book deal (which also cost him $300,000 in penalties).  I mean, Fox News still lets him make an appearance on their shows, but he’s unelectable.

Anyone old enough to remember Senator Bob Packwood (R-OR)?  The Washington Post ran an article detailing accusations from 10 different women claiming the senator sexually harassed or sexually abused them.  The Senate Ethics Committee recommended an expulsion, and Packwood bowed out on his own.  

Karl Rove, a senior advisor to President George W. Bush, resigned after allegations of exerting improper influence over multiple situations.  

Check out the precipitous drop in Anthony Weiner’s favorability numbers among Democratic voters in New York

Do I need to mention Anthony Weiner (D-NY)?  The former Congressman was a rising star in the Democratic Party, until media outlets reported that he texted nude pictures of himself to various women.  He quit his position in the House, and almost had a shot in a mayoral election in New York City … until he did the same thing again (please google “Carlos Danger.”)

Mark Foley (R-FL), a former House member, resigned in 2006 after allegations surfaced that he was sending sexuality explicit messages to pages.

Larry Craig (R-ID), a senator charged with soliciting sex from an undercover police officer in a public restroom.  Though he maintained his innocence, he resigned in 2007.

Chris Lee, (R-NY), resigned after soliciting a woman on Craigslist and e-mailing shirtless photos of himself.

There are dozens of examples of politicians behaving badly.  But they understood that when confronted with evidence, they needed to do everyone a favor and walk away.   Despite the seemingly endless nature of scandals and foolish decisions of politicians, there are rules even among the sharks.  

The landscape of politics changed in 2016, for a number of reasons.  However, it seems clear that the new playbook for politics suggests a different path forward.  Caught in a scandal?  Admit it, deny it, gaslight accusers, but do not resign.  Ride out the storm of disapproval.  Take the beating the press will hand out.  Hide in the office.  But a refusal to resign means a longer stay in power and the hope that voters will forget.

How are we seeing this play out? 

Former President Donald Trump set this tone (though we will see he isn’t the only factor in causing this shift).  Practically any number of gaffes during his 2016 Election campaign would have crushed candidates before him.  Democrats unleashed a video of Trump and television host Billy Bush prior to a taping Access Hollywood, where Trump described how he repeatedly attempted to seduce married woman, and mused about his celebrity status, “I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. … Grab ‘em by the p***y. You can do anything.”  Under the old rules, that would have been damning enough.  However, Trump dismissed it as ‘locker room talk,’ not to be taken seriously. 

In 2018, news outlets reported that Trump’s attorney, Michael Cohen, paid $130,000 to an adult film star for a non-disclosure agreement about her sexual affair with Trump in 2006.  While Trump distanced himself from the payment, he did not deny the affair.

Trump, left, was accused of mocking Kovaleski, right.

During his 2016 campaign, Trump also mocked the physical handicap of New York Times reporter, Serge Kovaleski.

Trump, as president, attempted to leverage Ukrainian officials to conduct an investigation into the Biden family to discredit current President Joe Biden.  This earned Trump his first impeachment.  His second impeachment stemmed from actions on the insurrection at the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021, where he urged on his supporters, who wrongfully claimed that Trump truly won the election.

Any historian or political scientist could write volumes about the insane antics of Trump, but that’s not the point.  Trump’s actions set a terrible precedent because despite evidence of his terrible nature, he refused to step away from politics.  Regardless of what journalists uncovered, or the slew of allegations of sexual assault from dozens of women, Trump defied the unwritten rules of politics.

Trump crossed the Rubicon with his refusal to relent in the face of evidence of his transgressions.  Other politicians (from both parties) now understand they have no obligation to play by the old rules, either.  These politicians hope that once the initial news cycle with their scandal fades away, so will the memories of the voters.  

Remember Governor Andrew Cuomo from New York?  I wrote about his underreporting of COVID-19 deaths in senior centers and the concerning allegations of sexual harassment.  He’s riding the rough waves and refusing to yield to the calls for his resignation, even from his own party.  The New York General Assembly passed laws weakening the power of the governor, but Cuomo remains undeterred.  If the people want him out, they’ll have to vote him out.  Cuomo has already announced plans to run again in 2022.

Congressman Gaetz in the running for world’s most punchable face

Travel westward and catch up with current Governor Greg Gianforte of Montana.  You might remember him for body slamming Ben Jacobs, a reporter from The Guardian.  Gianforte didn’t stop his campaign for House of Representatives, but did receive a misdemeanor conviction for assault and had to pay $4,400 in restitution to Jacobs.  Gianforte served two terms in the House before transitioning to his current role as governor.

Speaking of governors behaving badly, Governor Ralph Northam (D-VA), faced a controversy in 2019 when a medical school yearbook photo surfaced with Northam wearing blackface standing next to a man in a Ku Klux Klan hood.  Northam apologized for the photo, but then later claimed he was neither man in the photograph and had no recollection of it.  Regardless, he resisted the intense pressure for him to resign.

Perhaps the most disgusting politician using this new tactic is Congressman Matt Gaetz (R-FL).  The bombastic congressman faces allegations that he had sex with a 17 year old girl.  Gaetz is also connected to corrupt and disgraced Florida politician Joel Greenberg, who used his position in government to defraud taxpayers and run a sex trafficking ring.  Greenberg recently cut a deal with prosecutors, likely to avoid a long prison sentence in exchange for testimony against his long time ‘friend’ Gaetz.  The congressman admits to nothing and claims “the deep state” is plotting against him.

Big time politics comes to West Virginia 

Political operators at the state level see these tactics and they quickly adopt them.  In 2019, Glen Dale Police arrested and charged State Senator Mike Maroney (R-02) with conspiracy, house of ill fame and assignation and prostitution.  The charges were later dropped, despite police finding Maroney’s phone number in a prostitute’s phone and thousands of messages exchanged.  The prevailing thought is that Maroney’s lawyers were going to draw out his trial as long as possible, making the cost of his trial a drain on the finances of the town of Glen Dale and Marshall County.  He currently retains his seat in the West Virginia State Senate.

Delegate Mandt tries to play on fears that ‘they’ are out to get you but he can’t tell you who this mysterious ‘they’ are, and yes, this came from his Facebook page

In the Huntington area, Delegate John Mandt (R-16) is no stranger to controversial statements and actions that would ruin the careers of most politicians. In response to the local mosque in Huntington having a candlelight vigil, Mandt, unprompted, posted on Facebook, “Anything Muslim is going to be associated with Democrats. It’s better to stay away than be associated with them.”  

After a number of other disparaging remarks appeared about the gay and lesbian citizens in the state, Mandt caused another stir.  Just prior to the 2020 Election, Mandt’s number appeared to be up when screenshots of a group chat showed him using inflammatory language directed at gay and lesbian citizens, and Muslims.  In the wake of this revelation, Mandt resigned, but quickly reversed course and said his name was still on the ballot for the upcoming election and asked his supporters to re-elect him to the House of Delegates.  And without hesitation, his supporters did just that.

Last week, Delegate Joe Jeffries (R-22) posted a vulgar and sexually explicit video on TikTok, which garnered a great deal of criticism.  Jeffries made no apology for the video, commenting only, “I’m an elected official, but I’m still a real person.”  Despite being removed from all committee assignments, Jeffries says he has no plans to resign.

Whether or not you approve or disapprove of these men and their actions on a private level is up to you, but the lesson they’ve drawn is clear.  Regardless of their conduct as public officials, none of it means resigning from office.

Why is this happening?

Of course, it’s easy to lay all of this at the feet of former President Donald Trump.  And he deserves a significant share of the blame, but Trump is only the catalyst for this.  A few underlying causes have been simmering … 

1. Decline in trust in the media.  One of the key institutions in holding government accountable holds less sway than it once did.  Sometimes, news outlets make mistakes, or the public becomes dissatisfied with the stories receiving coverage or how they’re covered.  Also, the media reports information which upsets the natural order of our thinking.  People don’t trust the media at times because it makes them aware of events they don’t want to believe.

Gallup’s poll reveals a slow degradation of faith in the media

The decline in the faith in media to report accurately leads destruction of a once trusted voice.  Not even the most objective news outlets have enough credibility for may Americans.  Too often, we do not want to see the overwhelming evidence right in front of us.

2. Tribalism and failure to condemn ‘our guy.’  It’s always pretty easy to pile on the people we don’t like or who don’t represent our views, but what happens when one of our political heroes is mired in scandal?  The refusal of politicians at the highest levels of leadership in their parties and in our nation to condemn the exploits of their bad actors translates to others believing the behavior is tolerable.  Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) are the worst offenders in this regard.  (And before you say in your head, “But what about Pelosi and Biden?,” you should read their comments on Cuomo and Northam.)

3. Post-modernist thinking.  If you aren’t familiar with the post-modernist movement from the 1990s and early 2000s, the key concept from their academic thinking was to call everything into question.  There is no absolute truth and everything is relative.  While post-modernist thinking has fallen out of favor (for a number of good reasons), its residue in American society is that everything in politics can be called into question, vis-á-vis, “fake news.”  Someone makes the claim that Politician A committed certain crimes.  Politicians will explain it away as simply untrue.  A free-floating standard of truth allows politicians to conjure up any explanation for their actions which they can offer as plausible.  

4. Politics of fear.  When any politician finds themselves embroiled in a scandal, they appeal to the fear of the general population to save them.  One tactic is to claim that even if the scandal is true, you can defuse the situation by advocating that a flawed member of your party is still better than even the best member of the opposing party.  Another tactic utilizing fear involves establishing or endorsing conspiracy theories and positing that the evil forces behind the conspiracy.  

Why do campaigns spend so much of their advertising budget on negative campaigns?  They’re effective. They provoke fear through false or misleading statements which make voters worry that if they pick the wrong candidate, society will fall apart.  President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 campaign ran the infamous “Daisy ad,” which implied a nation led by Republican Barry Goldwater would end up in a disastrous nuclear war.  Not to be outdone, the 1988 campaign for President George H.W. Bush included the “Willie Horton ad,” which painted Democrat Michael Dukakis as soft on crime through a campaign ad aimed at suburban white citizens.

Part of this fear-mongering includes deflecting criticism about a scandal to other problems.  Give the people a greater problem than your scandal to think about, and they will.  “Yes, I make this awful statement, but I’m the only one protecting you from them.  They’re really after you and I’m just in their way.”  

Marshall, Interrupted: Death Does Come in Threes

Marshall University is the second largest institution of higher learning in West Virginia, with a rich tradition dating back to 1837.  The school originated as a private school, and soon transformed to a public school for teacher preparation.  In the early 20th century, Marshall became a college with expansive programs and in 1961, the state granted it with university status.  Since obtaining university status, and particularly in the 21st century, Marshall administration sought to expand its programs and elevate its profile.  

Since 2000, the school constructed or renovated over a dozen new buildings for academics, residence, and athletics.  The Dot Hicks Softball Stadium is a fantastic place to watch a game.  The Hoops Family Field is recently constructed home to the 2021 National Champion Men’s Soccer Team.  The Herd Baseball team finally has a blueprint and land for a long overdue stadium.  The facilities have become an amazing part of campus.

Marshall continually expands its offerings in programs and facilities, including a new physician’s assistant program, a nationally recognized digital forensics program, a flight school in Charleston, and a new school of pharmacy.  The university was elevated to the ‘R2’ status as a research facility, meaning more high level research occurs in Huntington.

Marshall has also more fully embraced traditions involving its namesake, the Chief Justice John Marshall.  Annual celebrations with cake and quoits tournaments are the norm.  The new Rec Center offers first class fitness equipment and programs.  I am genuinely sad that these developments for Marshall occurred after I finished my education there.  It’s a great place for students to learn and become better people.  

Huntington is home to an ever expanding Marshall University

Currently, Dr. Jerome ‘Jerry’ Gilbert occupies the presidency of Marshall University and he deserves some of the credit for recent successes of the school.  Undoubtedly, there are numerous administrators, professors, and financial supporters of the school who deserve credit for the big moves in Huntington.  However, we know if the school didn’t succeed, Gilbert would take the blame.  The success or failure of the school falls at his feet.

Gilbert’s office has not only helped to expand the infrastructure of the school, but also has plans in place to increase the school’s national image, increase enrollment, increase freshmen retention rates, increase graduation rates, integrate the university with local businesses and non-profits, develop more graduate degree programs, and create more job training for the people in this area.  His plans and achievements seem to fall in line with the university’s institutional priorities (published in 2015, prior to Gilbert’s arrival).  

I like the trajectory of Marshall University.  So, it came as a surprise to me that Dr. Gilbert announced in late April that he would not seek to extend his contract as president beyond its current end date of July 2022.  His decision stated that would part with Marshall for “a variety of personal and professional reasons.” 

Dr. Jerome Gilbert has led Marshall during the past five years

On June 4th, we saw another strange announcement, this time from the athletic department.  Athletic Director Mike Hamrick announced he was stepping down from his position and would still serve the university in a fundraising capacity.  This seemed like peculiar decision, considering the school had only recently won the national title in men’s soccer.  Hamrick also (presumably) played a role in bringing the Herd’s new football coach, Charles Huff, to town.  The longtime AD also played a pivotal role in massive development of athletic facilities since his arrival in 2009.  Moreover, someone has to get credit for bringing Men’s Soccer Coach Chris Grassie to Huntington, where Grassie turned the Herd into a national champion in less than five years.

Just four days after Hamrick’s resignation, Dr. Jaime Taylor, school provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, announced his resignation.  He will become the new president at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas.  While this represents a step up for Dr. Taylor’s career, I have to pause at the timing of this development.  Three prominent administrators leave the university within five weeks of one another and these men occupied the three most significant positions at the school. 

Marshall University, in terms of its athletics and academics, is in a good place.  I would hope that people in the Huntington region would want to know what the reasons are for the departure of successful administrators, particularly when Dr. Gilbert cited professional reasons for his decision not to seek a contract extension.  What’s going on in Huntington?

Marshall University’s Board of Governors are displeased with the administration.  Why does the Board of Governors have a problem with a successful administrative team?  

There is a clash of ideologies from Marshall’s Board of Governors and Dr. Gilbert

Key members of the Board of Governors hold conservative beliefs, and three of these individuals have donated directly to Governor Jim Justice’s campaign (this will become more pertinent in a moment), including Chairman Patrick Farrell.  

If you have questions about Dr. Gilbert’s liberal bona fides, he has pursued a number of liberal policies in his tenure, including 

  • Supporting a student led effort to rename Jenkins Hall, the namesake of which served as a general in the Confederate Army during the Civil War and was a slaveowner.  After the Board of Governors voted 9-7 to keep the name in 2019, they unanimously voted to change it in 2020.
  • Targeting racism on campus, endorsing the Black Lives Matter movement, and encouraging students to engage in programs such as a voluntary book study of Just Mercy.
  • Influencing the end of Stewart’s Hot Dogs contract as a food vendor at Marshall football games, after Stewart’s owner and legislator John Mandt (R) made negative comments about Muslims and homosexuals.  
  • An outspoken stance opposing bills in the state legislature that would have permitted the carrying of firearms on college campuses.

The tenuous relationship between Gilbert and the Board of Governors reached a new level of strain this winter, when the president and the athletic director made a bilateral decision regarding the head football coach, the crown jewel position of Marshall University.  The Huntington Herald-Dispatch reported in January of this year that Chairman of the Board of Governors, Patrick Ferrell, lamented the decision not to renew Doc Holliday’s (former Marshall football coach) contract, saying, “The Marshall president made this decision after consulting with Mike Hamrick.”  Ferrell also noted that Gilbert informed the Board of his decision, but the Board had no say in the matter.  

Speculation from a number of Huntington natives believed the more conservative crowd from the Board of Governors (and Governor Justice) wanted Brad Lambert (defensive coordinator under Holliday) to land the vacant head coaching position.  Regardless of who they wanted for the position, it seems clear they were not thrilled about being kept out of the loop.

There’s a serious disconnect between Governor Jim Justice and Dr. Gilbert

The nature of the relationship between these two hit a strange snag in 2017, when allegations surfaced that the governor was attempting to meddle in the affairs of Marshall’s football program.  According to The Charleston Gazette-Mail, the governor sought to have then head coach Doc Holliday fired and replaced with his old friend (and former head coach) Bob Pruett.

At one point, Justice stated he did meet with five members of the school’s Board of Governors, but claims he did nothing to pressure them to do fire Holliday.  The report was so bizarre, it drew the ire of The Washington Post.  After Marshall had a difficult 3-9 season, Justice’s chief of staff, Nick Casey stated, “It was not a meeting to say, ‘Fire the coach and hire Pruett,’ … “It was a meeting to say, ‘Ratchet up your game and do something to get yourself back to greatness.’ ”

The sports angle encompassed a significant portion of Justice’s complaints, but the governor also pontificated about stagnant enrollment at Marshall and wondered aloud why the number of students in Huntington had not increased in the same manner as West Virginia University.  (Maybe someone should tell him that it’s cheaper for New Jersey citizens to pay out of state tuition at WVU than in-state tuition at their public schools.)

A serious instance of the beef between Justice and Gilbert surfaced in February of this year, as the Marshall president told members of the state legislature that he had been asked to stay quiet about the budget shortfall for the year that would have impacted the Promise Scholarship program.  This was prior to the 2020 Elections, which could have negatively affected Justice’s chances at re-election.  Moreover, both Marshall and West Virginia University had expressed frustration at the state’s failure to send payments totaling approximately $5.65 million.

It’s also worth noting that Jim Justice, as governor, has the responsibility to appoint the members of Marshall University’s Board of Governors.  I’m sure that Big Jim did not appreciate having budgetary problems aired in front of the state legislature, let alone the entire state.  

West Virginia puts the squeeze on higher education 

West Virginia’s government has slowly, but steadily reduced its commitment of tax dollars to higher education, and of course, this includes Marshall University.  As recently as Fiscal Year 2013, the state appropriated $54 million to Marshall, but for Fiscal Year 2020, that figure dwindled to $44 million.

With the reduction in state funds, difficult budget decisions must be made, and often this means reducing salaries, changing job descriptions, and more notably, raising costs of tuition and housing.  It is no secret that rising costs in higher education is an issue across the nation, but the lack of any effort from the state to correct this problem might have been too much for Gilbert to continue fighting.  

West Virginia appropriations to Marshall University trends downward

West Virginia also has a peculiar attitude towards higher education.  Currently, only 20.6% of West Virginians hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, which is well below the national average of 32.1%.  Do people here shun higher education?  To some degree, yes.  Many West Virginians hold a perception that individuals with higher education believe they are better than those without an education.  It’s as if those highly educated folks sit up in their ivory towers and have no idea what normal West Virginians experience.  And those without higher education sit in judgement of their fellow citizens, questioning their expertise and usefulness.  (Side note:  In case you’re wondering, West Virginia ranks lowest in percentage of citizens with a bachelor’s degree in the United States, and this includes Puerto Rico.)

The lack of higher education is somewhat attributed to the fact that many young college graduates leave the state.  However, I believe the disregard for higher education and expertise among the citizens bleeds into the government, as well.  For instance, here in West Virginia, I marveled at the 2018 Republican Primary (for the 3rd District House seat) when candidate Conrad Lucas was criticized for earning a degree from Harvard University (read about it here).  Lucas’ opponents clearly understood that criticism would resonate with Republican primary voters.

Maybe Dr. Gilbert, Dr. Taylor, and Hamrick grew tired of fighting against the legislature, the governor, the school’s board, and a state that didn’t appreciate them.  Did their ideological views always represent the majority of West Virginians?  No.  But this is no reason to discard a team that has a positive net effect.

What now?  

With Gilbert’s contract expiring in 13 months, and the two other positions lacking a permanent replacement, one has to wonder what the future of Marshall University will be and, what is the Board of Governors doing to remedy the situation?  How will we attract quality administrators to these positions if they lack the freedom to do their jobs? 

I’m not alone in questioning this set of decisions.  In the June 16th edition of The Charleston Gazette-Mail, an opinion piece from Marshall football alum Martin Palazeti outlines the odd circumstances of Mike Hamrick’s departure.  Palazeti’s piece rightly questions why Marshall would part ways with an employee with such a successful resumé.  

I want to be wrong about three resignations occurring within a five week period.  I hope it’s merely a coincidence.  But, the older I become, the less I believe in coincidences.  If there’s information we aren’t seeing, please, someone, tell us.  But I think the Huntington community may also want answers with respect to why these changes occurred, and they deserve these answers.

Three Observations on Education

After nearly 18 years of teaching in public schools, I have learned a great deal about myself, my students, and the deeper values of education.  This work simultaneously provides me with some of the lowest points in my life, and some of the highest hopes for the future.  To say it is a strange line of work would be an understatement.  In most instances, the frustrations which develop in the lives of most teachers do not come from the children.  

One would presume that adults (especially educated ones) care about children and education.  Yet, that often does not seem the case in the United States, particularly in West Virginia.  Adults really do ruin everything.  I want to present three major observations about education and the problems this field faces.

Socioeconomic status of students and their educational achievement are strongly correlated.  In the United States, research demonstrates these factors are connected and one of the best ways which this nation can improve the education of its children is to effectively reduce poverty.  Of course, people of good conscience may disagree over the best way to reduce poverty, but at this point, the relationship between educational achievement and wealth is almost undeniable.

No one is or would suggest that people without wealth are incapable of learning, but these children often face obstacles which are unnoticed by society.  Children from low-income families worry about the lack of adequate food, clothing, and shelter.  A lack of money also causes friction within a marriage and those arguments create collateral damage in the lives of children.  

This also leads us to an uncomfortable fact that a large achievement gap exists between black and white children in America.  This should not surprise anyone when we consider the wealth gap between black and white Americans.  It is important to recognize that these are correlations and yes, a critic might argue the gaps in education, wealth, etc. go beyond this simple solution of: fix poverty, fix education.  I agree with that statement.  Complex problems rarely have simple solutions.  However, one cannot explain away this data as merely coincidence.  

In West Virginia, more than 10,000 students are documented as homeless and aside from that figure, almost 10% of the state’s students live with someone who is not a parent (which leads the nation).  The instability in the home lives of West Virginia’s children has further consequences, including chronic absenteeism.  This only further erodes learning and the achievement gap.  Currently, West Virginia has 11.8% of Pre-K through grade 3 students missing 18 days or more of school in a given academic year.  (Addendum:  the early years of education are far more critical.  Studies show that children who are more than one grade level behind by the time they reach grade 6 typically never make up that gap.)

West Virginia’s poverty rate stands near 18%, which means we are one of the poorest states in the Union.  Only Louisiana, New Mexico, and Mississippi have rates worse than ours.

Poverty rates across the United States

When we look at educational achievement, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), it’s almost a mirror image of poverty rates.  West Virginia, Louisiana, New Mexico, and Mississippi rank in the bottom five of both categories.  

Minnesota, for instance, has one of the nation’s lowest poverty rates and nearly the highest rate in NAEP test scores.  Are we to believe that the children of Minnesota are somehow inherently smarter?  Or perhaps their teachers far exceed those of our own state?  Of course not.  

The teacher in the room matters more than you might think.  Research demonstrates that the most important component in directly affecting educational outcomes is the effectiveness of the teacher in the classroom.  Good teachers make a difference in the teaching of the material but do far more than that.  According to research done at Stanford University, the importance of a solid teacher extends to the encouragement of positive behaviors, including decreasing student absenteeism.

Bearing this in mind, how does the United States, and in particular, West Virginia, treat teachers?  Not very well.  We do little to incentivize education as a prioritized profession in our society.  

Teachers do not receive pay commensurate to their degree of education.  Nationally, the average teacher salary is $60,477 and in West Virginia, the average salary statewide is $50,238.  This state pays $10,000 less than the national average, and that gap actually narrowed thanks to two teacher strikes in the last four years.  

A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) suggested that teachers make 21.8% less than those with similar levels of education in other professions.  The study also revealed that when adjusted for inflation, teachers in 2018 made less money than in 1996. 

Beyond compensation, government at all levels seems to be unable to provide any incentive for young men and women to seek out jobs as educators.  Popular culture has turned education into a joke, where people who teach in public schools somehow never amounted to anything in life.  Television, film, and literature can have a profound effect on the way society views any person, object, or in this case, a profession.

Think of all the cartoonish caricatures of teachers and principals we have seen in the last 30 years.  Saved by the Bell gave my generation the lovable goofball Mr. Belding.  Ferris Bueller’s Day Off portrayed a clever teenager running circles around the dimwitted Mr. Rooney — and who can forget Ben Stein’s classic monotone voice explaining to a glazed over class “voodoo economics”?  Do we need to remind anyone of the jerk principal in The Breakfast Club?  Hollywood has slowly ebbed away at the respectability of the profession.

Mr. Feeny isn’t as good as you think … look at the assignment in the background

Society has somehow changed the nature of how we view teachers.  Teachers do not feel a general sense of respect from the community at large.  Polling data reveals teachers are justified in feeling this way.  The data from Gallup reveals a few interesting trends about public education in America.  For instance, in 1975, 62% of respondents stated they had either a ‘great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’ of respect for the institution of public schools.  In 2019, only 29% of Americans had the same level of respect for public schools (the second lowest number on record). 

Disproportionate stress and burnout are the results.  Typically, teachers who leave the profession do so within five years, but studies also show that teachers typically need five years to maximize their effectiveness in the classroom.  They leave just when they’re hitting a groove in terms of their abilities but the other nonsense drives them out of the classroom.

So why do they leave?  

1. Petty tyranny and bureaucratic madness.  Schools are increasingly asked to take on more responsibilities and ultimately, those jobs trickle down to teachers.  Tasks are piled on to the plate of teachers while nothing is ever removed.  Aside from instruction of students and associated tasks with that (lesson plans, research, etc.), schools expect teachers to attend and work extracurricular events, counsel students about behaviors, collect money for various items, chaperone school events, make contact with parents in multiple ways, look for signs of mental health problems or any abuse, or any other number of record keeping and secretarial tasks that end up taking time away from actual instruction.  The West Virginia State Legislature has routinely added more responsibilities to public educators or dictated what we should or should not teach.

Is this a European monarch or West Virginia lawmaker? Hard to tell the difference anymore

Currently, West Virginia’s lawmakers are passing policies in the 2021 Legislative Session which lack support or input from educators, peer reviewed studies, or have any coherent logic.  (That’s another post in its entirety, but educational professionals do not want people with no experience in the field micromanaging their work.)

2. Lack of support from parents and the public.  Simply put, many parents believe their children over teachers.  They do not implement consequences at home, and this undermines the authority of educational professionals.  In the instance of West Virginia, the lack of strong parental authority and a safe environment mean that children lack the guidance they need to right their behaviors.  

In the past, other community members would often help provide guidance to children, but the loss of schools as a community institution seems to have a negative impact on the ability of others to help.  Consolidations have placed new schools in areas outside of towns and residential areas.  From my experience, adults living in areas are less likely to support these schools unless they have children attending them.  

3. Underfunded schools.  While teacher salary and lack of social supports create problems for teachers, a significant number of schools lack the resources necessary to provide students with a complete education.  The United States Department of Education has an annual budget of approximately $74 billion, which might seem like quite a bit.  When one considers the federal government spends nearly $4 trillion in a given year, the amount spent on education is a pittance.  This becomes more apparent when we consider defense spending receives ten times the funding of education. Everyone realizes defense of the nation is a priority but, by comparison, education receives such little funding.  

Critics will claim that “throwing money at the problem” will not cure the issues in American schools, and they are correct.  Money by itself doesn’t correct problems, but not having the financial resources to pay teachers, provide adequate supplies, and build proper facilities translates to educators struggling to keep the ship afloat. 

People misunderstand the purpose and mission of educational institutions.  In terms of human history, widespread educational programs are relatively new.  And we should continually ask ourselves about the purpose(s) of these institutions.  What do we want our children to learn and why?  

A segment of society believes schools should exist solely for job preparation, but this is not the case, nor should it be.  The purpose of education ought to be the cultivation of thought and intelligence, the development of moral character, and the devotion to helping children reach their fullest potential.  If society can do those things in a child, then they will be ready for the workforce (which often requires on the job training anyway) and it won’t matter how technology changes. 

Have schools become too fixed in their curriculum and educational strategies?  Perhaps so, but schools routinely receive questions from parents and children framed around the idea of “When will I ever need to know this as an adult?”  When someone asks that question, it feels tantamount to an accusation.  It’s as if someone is saying to a teacher, “You don’t know what you’re doing.”  

Exercising the mind is not altogether different from exercising the rest of one’s body.  We repeatedly do physical exercises in terms of weight training and cardiovascular exercises that do not often equate to real life activities.  “When am I ever going to have to do five rounds of push-ups as an adult?”  Probably never, but if you want your body to look a certain way or to have strength in particular muscle groups, you will do the push-ups.  The same is true for the mind.  Will you ever have to find the area under a curve in real life?  Or diagram a sentence?  No, but the effects on your brain are akin to you bench pressing a metric ton.  Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but you get the idea.  

We want our students to learn core information.  They need to memorize and learn rote activities.  However, education goes beyond simply knowing something.  The ability to think critically about an idea, event, issue, person.  This skill comes from the many little activities, lectures, assignments, questions, and lessons from schools. 

Many believe, as some historians have asserted, that public schools were created to produce factory workers.  I would contend this is an oversimplification of public education and if this was the case, one would be hard pressed to explain the teaching of literature, poetry, languages, science, art, and music.  What purpose does a carefully cultivated and well-rounded person serve in a factory?

The educational aspect of a school does not reflect the additional social responsibilities which I addressed previously in this post.  Schools spend so much time on the ‘other’ aspects of helping children, the academic education of children receives less emphasis than it should.  

While there is always room for improvement in our education system, we still produce so many good outcomes for children.  

West Virginia is the new Kansas …

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” 

— Albert Einstein 

One of the significant aspects of American government is the ability of individual states to implement most of the policies which govern day to day affairs of its citizens.  And each state’s policies vary to the needs and wants of the people living there.  Of course, factors like geography, economics, and various cultural aspects create different ways of living from one region to the next.   

These ‘laboratories of democracy’ allow states to experiment with various laws and policies, and if the policy works, other states tend to follow.  However, a failed experiment allows other states to learn from the failures of others.  Unless you are from West Virginia.

In the 2020 Elections, West Virginia grew a much deeper shade of red, where Republicans now possess supermajorities in both houses of the state legislature along with a Republican governor (presuming Jim Justice doesn’t pull another switch).  Why is this relevant?   Because the West Virginia GOP plans to repeat a failed experiment.

Republicans across the nation have argued the best way to foster economic growth comes through ‘supply-side economics.’   In this model, government should cut taxes and reduce the number of business regulations to spur economic growth.  When wealthier individuals and businesses do not have an obligation to pay as much in taxes, they will use that money to invest in their business and employees.  In theory, these low tax rates and reduced regulations will also act as a magnet for additional population.  The tax revenues per person would not necessarily be as much, but losses would be offset by the additional population and increased job growth.  

After the 2012 Elections, Kansas Republicans had a 31-9 majority in their state senate and a 90-35 advantage in their state house of representatives.  Newly elected Governor Sam Brownback completed the trifecta sweep for the GOP and they intended to use their strong numbers to implement radical changes based on supply-side economics.  

At the heart of the GOP plans was Kansas Senate Bill Substitute HB 2117, which dramatically reduced the state income tax and other taxes associated with businesses.  Brownback concluded this reduction in taxes would be “like a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy.”  

The governor relied heavily on supporters such as anti-tax guru Grover Norquist and supply-side advocate Arthur Laffer (both Ronald Reagan disciples).  Brownback’s tax cuts were also aided by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), who provided the ‘model legislation’ for HB 2117.  (Side note:  West Virginian educators are all too familiar with ALEC.)

Former Kanas Governor Sam Brownback

Brownback and the GOP dominated legislature predicted thousands of jobs, growth in GDP, and more investment in Kansas.  He noted, “We’ll have a real live experiment.”  The experiment failed.  Within five years, the Kansas Legislature would reverse these tax cuts.

What happened in Kansas when they dabbled in the supply-side?  

The additional revenue never materialized, which led to massive budget problems.  In 2014, the first full year of its implementation, the tax cuts blew a $700 million hole in the budget.  Budget deficits occurred each year, with the state government dipping into reserve funds to meet financial obligations.  Kansas officials also made draconian cuts to the budget.

Construction and road projects were stalled, pension contributions dropped, Medicaid suffered, and public education losses were so dramatic, the school-funding policy had to be changed.  Additionally, school consolidations occurred to help offset the budget cuts.  Considering that education made up approximately half of Kansas’ budget, public education suffered the brunt of the losses.  This doesn’t even address the downgrading of bonds, and missed payments by the state.  

By 2017, the Kansas Legislature faced a potential budget shortfall of $900 million, and not even they could stomach another year of Brownback’s policies.  When they rescinded his tax cuts, Brownback doubled down and vetoed the bill, leading to the legislature overriding his veto and taking tax rates back to the pre-2012 rates.  The Kansas Senate voted to repeal tax cuts by a vote of 38-0 and the Kansas House concurred with a vote of 123-2.  Oh, and those jobs and growth in GDP?  Kansas lagged behind all the states who bordered it.

West Virginia is now attempting to repeat the same failed experiment as Kansas.  Why?  Because insanity pervades in the legislature, dominated by Republicans who maintain that a supermajority in both houses of the legislature mean they are free to conduct an economic experiment that will cripple an already poor state.

In the West Virginia House of Delegates, Republicans hold a 77-23 advantage, and in the West Virginia Senate, they hold a 23-11 majority.  Governor, and sometimes buffoon, Jim Justice is also a Republican, meaning the state GOP is submitting an aggressive agenda for the 2021 legislative session.  

What do they hope to achieve? 

At the heart of the GOP plan is the reduction and ultimately the elimination of the state income tax.  The initial proposal, as outlined by Governor Jim Justice in his state of the state address, would cut the income tax by approximately one half for all citizens except for the “super highest earners,” who would see a reduction by about one-third.  Republican leadership has also expressed strong interest in reducing the business inventory tax.

Sources of West Virginia’s revenue

The GOP plan would differ from Kansas in one significant way.  The West Virginia GOP wants to offset tax revenue losses by raising sales taxes, excise taxes, and reinstating the food tax.  Currently, the state income tax accounts for approximately 43% of the state’s $4.6 billion budget.  That’s quite a bit of offsetting that the state needs if they plan to cut the income tax.

Republican leadership’s success or failure in this tax plan will hinge on bold predictions, including the low tax rates as a magnet for businesses and additional population.  Supporters of the GOP plans believe these measures could increase the state’s population by 500,000 over the next 10 years.  This is an eye-opening proposition, considering our population hovers around 1.8 million.  Has any state ever increased its population by 30% through changes in tax policy?  

Why is this a problem?

1. These tax cuts shift the burden of state funding from the wealthy to middle-class and poor.  West Virginia’s current income tax is a progressive tax, which means rates increase as income increases.  The lowest bracket taxes individuals at 3% of income with the maximum bracket taxing earners at 6.5% of their income.

Let’s examine two scenarios.  A person earning $100,000 annually would pay 6.5%, or $6,500 to the state.  An individual earning $20,000 would pay 4%, or $800.   If the state eliminated the income tax, each one would keep that money.  Sounds great in principle, right?  Not when you consider that West Virginians with low incomes strongly benefit from the tax dollars of wealthier citizens.  Eliminating the income tax lets you keep more income in the short term, but a variety of social programs which help the most vulnerable people will suffer.  The individual who keeps the extra 6.5% benefits because they still have their money and they lose no government services.  The other citizen keeps their additional 4% but they lose important services.

The taxes which the GOP wants to increase, however, will be absorbed by lower and middle income West Virginians.  These citizens will have to pay the same taxes on food and other products.  Taxes on tobacco, gas, or other excises disproportionately affect low-income citizens.  Everyone eats and uses fuel.  Those who do not earn high incomes can least afford to devote more money towards necessities.  This knowingly puts a greater strain on the people with fewest financial resources.

2. These plans would blow a hole in the budget.  In 2020, West Virginia spent approximately $4.6 billion dollars, and nearly $2 billion came directly from the state income tax.  Eliminating the income tax means finding additional revenue or making severe budget cuts.  

Presuming the GOP follows through and raises sales tax, and food tax, this will not generate the necessary revenue needed to balance the budget.  According to a recent article by Sean O’Leary, a Senior Analyst at the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy, these potential tax increases would only make up for $1.16 billion.  This would leave an additional $1 billion hole in the budget. 

To balance West Virginia’s budget would mean austere cuts to a number of programs that have long benefitted West Virginians.  If the budget faced cuts of the projected magnitude, public education stands to lose the most.  The Republican Party has considered a number of cuts already, including:

  • A general cut to the State Department of Education (rumored to be approximately 20%)
  • Reduction in the arts and humanities programs as enrichment for students
  • Dramatic cuts or elimination of subsidies to public colleges, universities, and the Higher Education Policy Commission 
  • The elimination of the PROMISE Scholarship program 

Education (including higher education) accounts for more than half of all spending by West Virginia.  The investment into this area of life unlocks opportunities for citizens.  For the state government to divest itself from education will prevent West Virginians from escaping poverty and from remaining in the state.

The elimination of the PROMISE Scholarship is particularly cruel, when an entire generation of young West Virginians have been told that if they meet certain academic expectations, the state would provide for their college tuition.  You are living under a rock if you do not believe that this program keeps good young people in this state.

Taking funding away from education ultimately hurts children and the future of this state.

West Virginia Budgets for 2019 and 2020

3. These cuts are a big risk.  Supply-side economics works under a dangerous presumption.  The thought is that if people retain more of their money instead of paying it in taxes, they will spend that money or invest it.  This is a serious gamble for West Virginia, and one that is unlikely to pay off.  The members of the legislature and most governments generally have incomes and wealth beyond that of their constituents.  Yet, the ordinary citizens of West Virginia must live with the consequences of bad policy.  

In the past, West Virginia has attempted to entice businesses and various industries with tax credits, and these have not had the desired effect.  I wish this was different.  There is no guarantee that tax credits or lowered rates will draw the massive number of businesses or startups which the Republicans are gambling on.  

4. Finally, the proposed tax cuts ignore the lessons of history.  Kansas tried the same type of program not even a decade ago, but West Virginia refuses to acknowledge a grievous mistake.  This kind of hubris will create an even more severe economy for a state already near the bottom of the nation.  

When this experiment fails, the GOP will not accept responsibility.  They will attempt to explain it away — that the liberal media refused to report on hidden successes, or that we simply needed to give the state more time to develop. 

So, why is the Republican Party doing this?

To answer this question requires a degree of speculation.  The Republican Party has developed a stranglehold on West Virginia politics since 2014, but they understand that maintaining power means delivering something to the people.   The GOP is very aware that they cannot continue blaming Democrats for the economic woes of West Virginia.  At some point, voters will tire of their policies if they cannot at least ‘move the needle.’  To some extent, this is about maintaining the power they sought to wrest from Democrats for a long time.  And that’s part of the game of politics.

Another reason, albeit it cynical, is the fact that wealthy donors, lobbyists, and business owners will benefit from the tax cuts.  Those people who serve in the state legislature are often elected with the help of financial backing.  Those who invest in the political careers of lawmakers want to see a return on that investment.  Donating to political campaigns is tax deductible and policy results such as deep tax cuts mean that those who can afford to donate to politicians will benefit.  

While I doubt many wealthy people sit at home and secretly plot how to keep the middle and lower classes in their respective positions, I do believe these tax cuts will contribute to a system that allows wealthier people to maintain that wealth and power.  It is inadvertent, at best, and sinister, at its worst.

I am certain that some members of the legislature genuinely believe they are doing the right thing for West Virginia.  The mentality of the ‘American Dream’ still looms large for Republicans who believe grit, determination, and hard work brings financial success in this nation.  They take the position that those who earn high incomes should not be penalized with high rates in taxes.

Though I believe social mobility exists in this country as much as any other, I do not know that Republicans understand the level of nuance or obstacles which some citizens face in their efforts to escape poverty.  The most extreme ideologues (conservatives and liberals) in our nation tend to see simplistic answers for complex problems and the world does not operate in this manner.  We are seeing this manifest itself in West Virginia, where Republicans look at the tax cuts as the solution to our economic woes.  This ignores decades of problems within our own economics (like a failure to diversify) and cultural norms that seem rooted in the most illogical acts (such as shunning higher education).