CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Shots fired.

With Governor-elect Jim Justice’s inauguration still to come on Jan. 16 and the state Legislature gaveling in late this year on Feb. 8, Justice and new Senate President Mitch Carmichael are already taking aim at each other over the state budget.

That’s the budget with the estimated $400 million hole up ahead.

Carmichael, a Republican, lavished Justice with credit with a news release at 4:13 p.m. carrying the headline “Senate President-elect Mitch Carmichael Endorses Governor-elect Jim Justice’s Plan for Budget Without Tax Increases.”

That’s not exactly Justice’s plan.

During the campaign, Justice, a Democrat, said the state can’t continue to cut. He also said there’s already too much tax burden on West Virginia’s residents.

He has, instead, focused on encouraging economic growth to pull state government out of its budget woes. Ideally, that would happen by mid-April, when the 2017 legislative session concludes.

Justice took the same position a few weeks ago at a meeting of his transition steering committees, expressing reluctance to either tax more or cut more.

At that point, Dec. 15, Justice said, “We’ve got to scrub all the financials and see really where we stand. Now I haven’t had a chance to do that yet. Then, that will lead us to where we need to go. You can’t get out of the hole until you know where you are in the hole. I’ve said many times that coal severance taxes are genuinely going to improve and improve significantly and improve quickly. But you’re still going to have a hole in the bucket.

“We’ve got to figure a way. Now, I want to figure out a way without laying additional taxation on our people or trying to just move in and cut, cut, cut. I want to find a way, so sincerely, but we have to find a way.”

Asked by another reporter if he still thinks he can propose a balance budget without raising taxes, Justice said: “You never say never, no matter what the situation might be. But I believe with all my soul, yes, I can do it.”

In today’s news release, Carmichael focused on the reluctance to raise taxes: “Senate President-elect Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, is embracing the campaign pledge of Governor-elect Jim Justice to present a balanced budget plan to the West Virginia Legislature for Fiscal Year 2018 that does not ‘raise taxes.'”

The news release quoted Carmichael as saying: “I am confident that Governor-elect Justice will honor his campaign pledge, submit a budget plan that reflects the fiscal reality of our state, and do so in accordance with the West Virginia Constitution. I am enthusiastic to work with the newly elected Governor to help realize the goal of a balanced West Virginia budget with no tax increases. I look forward to working with his plan to make it a reality for the citizens of West Virginia.”

At 6:25 p.m. Justice’s transition team put out its own release that didn’t appear to take Carmichael’s comments as compliments: “Justice Encourages State Leaders to Avoid Partisan Posturing.”

It didn’t mention Carmichael, but it said: “In November, the people of West Virginia spoke and they made it clear they are tired of all the political posturing. It’s going to take sincere efforts to solve the budget crisis. Political games won’t cut it anymore; We’ve got to put that to bed because we owe it to the people to get our budget under control.

“Our common enemy is the financial dog’s mess we’re in. I am looking forward to working with the legislature to pass a  balanced budget that’s good for our people.”

The Legislature had to go into overtime to pass the current fiscal year’s budget. It finally passed in mid June, 17 days after the regular session and with the new fiscal year just two weeks away.

FOLLOWUP: Carmichael says news release was not political posturing

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