CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In a rhetorical flourish almost certainly unlike any in the history of West Virginia gubernatorial oratory, Jim Justice spread his arms wide and moaned in an impression of Frankenstein’s monster.
“I always thought, if you got caught by Frankenstein, you deserved to die,” Justice said at the end of his first State of the State address and inspiring the laughter of delegates, senators and Supreme Court justices.
“Let me tell you just this. If we don’t do anything, if all we do is kick the can down the road and all we do is fight then we deserve to die.”
It was the new governor’s unique way of calling for unity up against a flat economy and a budget gap for the coming fiscal year estimated at $500 million. The governor’s budget proposal relies heavily on tax increases and not much on cuts. Legislators have said they would prefer to see significant cuts up front, so there could be immediate conflict between the two visions.
— Brad McElhinny (@BradMcElhinny) February 9, 2017
Justice’s version of the State of the State was unique through and through. In recent years, governors have used lecterns and teleprompters to work their way through highly-scripted speeches highlighting budget necessities and policy goals.
Justice sometimes strode to a whiteboard, where he used colored markers to illustrate points. He made off-the-cuff jokes, acknowledged more than once that he was sweating and sometimes sat in a chair just a few feet from observing legislators.
“I’m the one who signed up to run for governor. But we’ve got an 18-karat dog’s mess, don’t we?” Justice asked.
He called the state’s situation dire, a depression as great as he could possibly imagine. And, although his staff has said the state will need to dip into the Rainy Day Fund one more time to resolve the budget gap for the current fiscal year, he said use of the fund and across-the-board cuts represent easy answers that have been exhausted.
One way to solve the mounting problem, Justice said, would be to “cut more, cut more.” But then he rattled off a list of what would be sacrificed: state parks, colleges, seniors programs.
He said he couldn’t tolerate that scenario: “I can’t get there. I can’t get you there.”
Cuts of $400 million or $500 million would leave few tools for development, Justice said. “What is West Virginia going to become? A nuclear waste site?”
The alternative, he said, is tax increases. “I hate tax increases, hate ’em. But I’m going to show you the easiest way to get out of this,” Justice said, before heading to his whiteboard.
His administration has drawn up an estimated $450 million in increased revenue, including the establishment of a commercial activities tax. The proposed tax of two-tenths of a percent on gross revenues would be estimated to raise $214.3 million, according to Justice’s administration.
“If you don’t do this, you’re dead. You’re dead beyond belief,” Justice told the crowd of legislators.
He added, “I hate like crazy to deliver to you what you have to do.”
House Speaker Tim Armstead quickly issued a statement saying he hates like crazy the tax increase ideas.
“While I think there are areas where we can work with Governor Justice, specifically with relation to cutting red tape and reforming our education system, I’m disappointed in his proposals to solve our state’s budget crisis,” Armstead stated.
“We had hoped that this Governor would live up to his campaign promises of restructuring government and not putting additional tax burdens on our citizens, and to hear his proposal to balance our budget almost entirely with tax increases was a significant disappointment,” Speaker Armstead said. “While we want to work with the Governor to solve this budget crisis, I do not believe the approach he presented tonight is something this Legislature – or the voters who elected us – will support.”
The governor proposes a dollar hike on Turnpike tolls and said more of West Virginia’s roads should be subject to toll. “And then people in Princeton can come visit you,” he said, referring to the city at the southernmost point of the state Turnpike.
Justice’s proposed budget would include enough give for an average 2 percent pay increase for classroom teachers, and he said he would like to devote money to drug treatment centers in several West Virginia communities.
He also proposed doing away with the Smarter Balanced achievement test for students (actually, he proposed throwing it in the trash) and said he hopes Richwood is able to maintain its own high school rather than consolidating after last summer’s devastating floods. “I hope and pray that we end up with a school in Richwood.”
Justice pointed to the need for economic growth, including the desire for a rebound for coal. That earned a standing ovation.
— Brad McElhinny (@BradMcElhinny) February 9, 2017
But he also said the state needs to continue its efforts toward economic diversification.
“We have had our resources in West Virginia extracted over and over and, at the end of the rainbow, here we stand,” he said.
He proposed establishing a “waste czar” for his office and said the administration is already doing its part to trim the state fleet. “What I want to do is line ‘me up in front of the Capitol, have an auction and get rid of ’em,” Justice said.
Justice said he wants the state’s regulatory agencies to continue protecting safety and the environment, but he said they also need to avoid standing in the way of progress.
“We are not going to just say no,” Justice said.
The West Virginia GOP put out a statement after the speech criticizing Justice’s tax proposals.
“Voters last year asked for change, versus more of the same. Jim Justice is, sadly, more of the same. And we will fight with every conservative bone in our bodies to ensure that we solve our state’s problems by right-sizing our government and growing our economy, not raising taxes like the Party of Obama,” the state GOP wrote.
The state AFL-CIO praised Justice for seeking to avoid huge cuts and the layoffs of thousands of state employees while also attempting to find money for new investment.
“Governor Justice knows that the current dire budget situation calls for significant short-term sacrifices, but he hasn’t lost sight of his long-term goals of generating good paying jobs, growing the middle class and making West Virginia a top destination for both businesses and young workers – and he’s ready to get started on those goals right away,” West Virginia AFL-CIO President Josh Sword stated.
The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy praised Justice for “putting forth responsible and much-needed revenue measures to address the state’s massive budget crisis.”
The Cardinal Institute, which advocates for smaller government and fewer taxes, said it was disappointed by the governor’s speech.
“Unfortunately, Governor Justice decided to double down on the ideas of the past – that lasting prosperity will come top-down from Charleston and not from its citizens, entrepreneurs, and businesses from all reaches of the state,” according to a statement distributed by the Cardinal Institute.