According to his office’s press release, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey sent a letter to President Obama on February 11 expressing his concerns about the current direction of the Environmental Protection Agency, and urging the president to change the agency’s “current path” by nominating a more reasonable successor to recent EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.” As an example of the EPA’s unreasonableness, the highly publicized letter cited the agency’s “delay in issuing a permit for a West Virginia mining site” which “resulted in the layoff of nearly 150 workers.”
The problem is that it wasn’t true. There was no layoff, a fact revealed not by a reporter or a news organization. It had to be pointed out by a guy named Rob Goodwin in a letter to the editor in the Charleston Gazette.
Sadly, gaps between rhetoric and fact, like the one in Morrisey’s letter, are commonplace in West Virginia — in its politics, in its news reporting, and in its lawmaking.
One of the few journalists to readily acknowledge the problem is Ken Ward Jr. of the Gazette. Ward recently issued a series of tweets bemoaning the frequency with which lawmakers make unsubstantiated claims and are assisted by reporters who echo the claims, neither demanding sources nor checking the facts. So, when at a recent hearing on reforming the procedures under which teachers are hired and fired, Sen. Bob Plymale claimed that grievance judges almost always side with seniority, Ward tweeted to a reporter covering the hearing, “Does he have data to support that?”
Of course, Plymale didn’t.
Meanwhile, Ward has shown us how it should be done. Last year, in the wake of the Upper Big Branch mine tragedy, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed a “monumental” mine safety bill, which, a Ward story revealed, did almost nothing. The law didn’t require real-time ventilation and monitoring of coal dust, which caused the UBB explosion. “New” rock-dust standards were redundant, having been enacted two years earlier. An “anonymous mine safety tip line” was also already in existence. A requirement that miners be tested for drugs addressed an issue that has never been tied to a mining disaster and which had nothing to do with the UBB explosion. And the bill’s increased fines for safety violations have not been implemented to this day.
It’s important to note that Ward’s story wasn’t an “opinion piece.” It didn’t stake out a position either “for” or “against” the law. Nor was it really an example of “investigative journalism” since the facts contained in the story required only a comparison of the new law’s provisions to existing state and federal law. The story was simply a solid piece of reporting that presented the new law in the context of the facts. And they, not Ward’s opinion, undercut the governor’s claim that the law was “monumental.”
Sadly, Ward’s work is a rarity. Consequently, we’re regularly confronted with bogus claims and heavily hyped, but vacuous pieces of legislation that attract fawning press coverage with nary a trace of analysis.
Since 2010 West Virginia has been cutting corporate income taxes, ostensibly to stimulate job growth, but with no quantitative evidence that jobs have been added. Meanwhile the state will lose over $191 million in revenue by 2017 and now faces the prospect of painful budget cuts.
Similarly, West Virginia hands out roughly $100 million annually in corporate tax incentives, loans and grants without any analysis of their effect. Only every three years does the Commerce Department provide the Legislature with a report and even there it omits the names of recipient companies, the size of their incentives and any results that have or have not been achieved.
Then there’s the EPA’s supposed “War on Coal,” which is widely believed to have cost West Virginia thousands of jobs. Yet, there is no data to support the claim, nor is the absence of that data often reported. Meanwhile, there is abundant data showing that massive miner job losses have resulted from automation, the increased use of strip mining and mountaintop removal and, most recently, the emergence of inexpensive natural gas as a competitor to coal. But, state leaders would rather blame the EPA and reporters let them.
Similarly, the natural gas boom is regularly said to be creating tens of thousands of jobs in the state. At last count, fewer than 1,000 jobs have been created and there has been no measurable increase in economic activity or employment in the counties where drilling is most prevalent, all facts which are almost never noted in stories about “the boom.”
Finally, the governor is considering whether West Virginia should expand Medicaid under Obamacare. He publicly wrings his hands over the costs to the state, which are almost never quantified. Meanwhile, he and the press regularly fail to mention the $600 million in federal funds that expansion will inject every year into the state’s economy.
In short, West Virginia is often an accountability-free zone where content-free politicking combines with fact-free news coverage to produce impact-free laws — laws that may appeal to public sentiment, but which accomplish little or nothing often at the price of draining the state of resources.
Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld observed that there are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns, but in West Virginia we’re also afflicted with knowable unknowns and we’re afflicted with them because we’re just too lazy to ask, or better yet, demand.
— Sean O’Leary may be contacted at email@example.com. A version of this column with links to sources may be found at the-state-of-my-state.com.