Reporter’s Notebook: Appointments and commissions

It looks like with several appointments last week that Gov. Justice has mostly a full deck to play with now.

Anyone who has been reading my work knows the topic of having a secretary for the state Department of Commerce has been a focus of mine. In a state with an abysmal, but improving economy, we needed someone at the helm.

Ed Gaunch is someone with a lengthy business background, wrapping up his career as an insurance company CEO. He knows how to start a business, grow a business and knows the costs that businesses have.

It’s almost ironic that the first person to talk to me about former acting commerce secretary Clayton Burch was Gaunch, who was chairing a legislative committee looking into how commerce handled a flood relief program that had sputtered to a stop in February. Now he is in charge and he will have a full plate.

For example, we still have pending deals with China and Qatar. We don’t really know much about either deal. A lot of the China Energy deal with the state – which could involve as much as an $87.3 billion investment in the state’s natural gas industry – really hinges on whatever trade deal President Donald Trump can negotiate with Chinese officials.

Brian Anderson, director of the West Virginia University Energy Institute and a point person on the China Energy memorandum of understanding, left to lead the National Energy Technology Laboratory. His replacement, former U.S.-China Clean Energy Research Center Director James Wood, seems equally qualified to help with those negotiations.

With another report from the Department of Energy supporting the potential of Appalachia – including locations in West Virginia – as a location for a natural gas byproduct underground storage hub, that might also sweeten the deal for China Energy. West Virginia is on the cusp of an economic boom if we can handle this right. Gaunch is the man to do just that.

I don’t understand the attitude by some that Gaunch, who lost an election, should not be appointed to state government. I do, however, understand why some might be upset with the appointment of Jill Upson as director of the Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs.

The state NAACP called on her resignation prior to her losing a re-election bid after a super political action committee she chaired ran an ad using lynching as a metaphor in Arkansas. I’m sure the director of Black Americans for the President’s Agenda likely doesn’t run every ad by its board, but I’m skeptical of the idea that she didn’t know. Even if she didn’t know, she should have stepped down for the PAC and been more forceful in her denunciation.

Either way, Gov. Jim Justice (or Bray Cary) should have had enough public relations sense to pick someone who wouldn’t immediately receive negative reaction from the African American community. Some have written off the criticisms as Democrats just being against a black Republican. Honestly, there were better choices, such as Charles Minimah.

In other appointments last week, we now have a director for the Office of Drug Control Policy and a new council to help him come up with recommendations, though is another council/task force/blue ribbon commission needed?

We have a PEIA Task Force wrapping up today that was supposed to develop long-term plans for the public employee health insurance program. Instead, it’s considering some needed policy changes, but largely leaving reform and funding for someone else to tackle down the road.

We have a Blue Ribbon Commission for Four-Year Higher Education which is likely to blow past its December deadline for presenting the Legislature a reform plan. West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee wants to dismantle the Higher Education Policy Commission to create…another Higher Education Policy Commission, and the heavy-handedness of the whole thing is causing the other commission members to hit the brakes.

In 2016, former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin launched the Advisory Council on Substance Abuse and held 20 meetings across the state. This included six regional task forces. You can still find their recommendations on the website for the state Department of Health and Human Resources.

I feel like our health experts know what we need to do. The issue now is funding and implementation. The drugs of choice keep changing – in 2016 it was prescription drugs and 2017 it was heroin. In 2018 we’re seeing a shift back to methamphetamine, this time being brought in from Mexico instead of the local shake-and-bake operations.

No matter the drug, the issue is a societal and cultural problem. Much like Gaunch and the economy, our new ODCP director and this new council have their work cut out for them. I hope they can come up with ideas and solutions.

COMMENTS