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West Virginia House Votes To Bump Economic Development, Tourism Posts To Cabinet-Level Secretaries

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Perry Bennett
/
West Virginia Legislative Photography
Gov. Jim Justice delivers his state of the state address on Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021.

The West Virginia House of Delegates has passed a bill that would bump two high-profile jobs in state government to cabinet-level positions. Lawmakers in the lower chamber voted Wednesday to approve House Bill 2019.

The measure would elevate the director and commissioner positions within the Office of Economic Development and Tourism Office — both currently housed within the state Department of Commerce — to cabinet-level secretary positions.

The bill would create separate departments for each secretary position, although the bill outlines no additional personnel and has no impact on the state budget. The current salaries for the respective director and commissioner position would not change as a result of the bill. It would only change the title of those positions.

In recent weeks, former Senate President Mitch Carmichael took on the role as director in the Office of Economic Development. Chelsea Ruby has been the Commissioner of Tourism since Gov. Jim Justice first took office in January 2017.

While House Bill 2019 would affect anyone who would hold these positions in the future, Justice mentioned both Carmichael and Ruby in his state of the state address last week at the opening of the legislative session.

“Tonight, I am asking you to create two agencies, two new cabinet positions. I will put Mitch Carmichael in the economic development position and Chelsea Ruby in the tourism position. Mitch is stuck on ‘on.’ Everybody that knows Mitch knows he's stuck on ‘on’ all the time,” Justice said. “He could probably sell bread to starving Russians on credit. And Chelsea has done an amazing, amazing job. That's all there is to it.”

Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, spoke in opposition to House Bill 2019 during Wednesday’s floor session, arguing that the bill unnecessarily rewards Carmichael.

“I sincerely wish that we could have divided the bill and could vote on elevating the director of tourism and the director of economic development cabinet-level positions separately,” Pushkin said.

Pushkin noted that last summer, when delegates had secured enough signatures to call themselves into a special session — to address the governor’s unilateral approach to the coronavirus pandemic — Carmichael halted that effort in the Senate.

He insinuated that Carmichael’s new job was somehow a favor handed down by Justice.

“We're rewarding that bad behavior with a cabinet-level position and a retirement plan that's going to be based on almost a six figure salary for the rest of his life,” said Pushkin, without mentioning Carmichael by name. “This is in no way personal. I like him. He's my friend.”

House Republicans argued that the bill was not about Carmichael or Ruby themselves, but the positions they hold — and giving those department secretaries more weight in carrying out the work of the state.

“This is just another thing we need to do to elevate the importance of these two offices,” Del. Vernon Criss, R-Wood said. “This elevation is important for tourism. It’s also important for economic development.”

House Government Organization Chair Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, took questions from Del. Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, about whether the bill would open the door for more costs into the future.

“Would you agree that it does create the possibility — maybe even the propensity — for there to be growth within those departments in the future?” Gearheart asked.

“I think that would have to be dealt with on separate legislation that would have to come before this body,” Steele answered.

In the end, the bill received overwhelming bipartisan support and passed on an 86-13 vote. House Bill 2019 now heads to the Senate for consideration.


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