CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice wants the state’s next budget to set aside $105 million into a “Save Our State Fund” for economic development and infrastructure investment.
He announced the idea during his State of the State address a week ago and, in recent days, has amplified his desire for the funding.
On Wednesday, Justice’s administration put out a video message, touting the SOS Fund.
“If we don’t fully implement this plan or something that’s awfully similar to this, our state’s going to die,” Justice says in the video.
On Tuesday, he said he would be able to save West Virginia’s fairs and festivals, which were among the proposed cuts in his budget, if legislators embrace his SOS Fund.
“If the Legislature fails to adopt my plan to bring prosperity to West Virginia, there will be even bigger cuts that will damage our state further,” Justice stated.
And in finance committee meetings in the Senate and House of Delegates, Justice’s new commerce secretary, Woody Thrasher, has touted the proposal.
Legislators asked Thrasher whether he believes the $105 million in additional expenses would be worthwhile.
“If I thought the tax increases that we’re going to have to do to support these things were going to be counterproductive, I would not be supportive of them,” Thrasher said.
“I think the void we have is the ability to facilitate site development, incentives, preparing sites, enhancing our workforce training in certain places, and I believe that is going to be a far more productive venue to lure businesses than the counterpart, the negativism of those tax increases we’d have to do. Life is full of trade-offs. I believe from a business perspective this is a very worthwhile, beneficial and profitable tradeoff.”
During Thrasher’s appearance Wednesday morning before the House Finance committee, Delegate Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, used an analogy to describe how “SOS” sounds to him.
“All along, businesses like myself and other businesses — it seems like the governor is proposing to take tax revenue from all these existing businesses, that’s going to stifle growth for me, to create new growth,” said Householder, who is vice president of Air-Row Sheet Metal Compact.
“Can you explain how that whole growth process is going to work?”
Thrasher built on the analogy to describe a man-made lake, rather than one that results from damming a stream.
“In one case that water level remains stagnant,” Thrasher said. “That’s the analogy of where West Virginia is.”
Householder then asked, “So what should we do to remove that stagnation?”
Thrasher responded, “If you look at a lake created by damming a stream, that water goes over the spillway, and let’s call that profit. So my goal is to be harvesting that profit, going upstream on that dam, going upstream and reinvesting in new businesses. It’s what I’ve done my whole life.”
Thrasher established The Thrasher Group, an engineering and architectural firm based in Harrison County, with his father in 1983. It has nearly 400 employees. Thrasher is also the managing partner of the White Oaks Business Park in Bridgeport. He’s also chair of the WVU Alumni Association.
Householder, also a small business owner, didn’t buy Thrasher’s version of the analogy.
“We’re penalizing all those existing businesses out there. Now I can’t grow. This business can’t grow,” Householder said. “Because we’re thinking the government wants to take our profits that we’re going to use for growth — we’re going to invest in machinery, we’re going to invest in human capital — and we’re going to go plant this money in the other end of the lake in hopes that we’re going to achieve this utopia. I just don’t see it.”
Thrasher agreed that the plan is not one West Virginia would want to embrace for the long term. But he said for now, the state needs to invest to encourage new business growth.
“For me as a business owner that has a lot of money scattered throughout West Virginia, I would like nothing better than to see more businesses locate in West Virginia, even if I have to subsidize them because that gives me the opportunity to reap the harvest of that increased economic activity.”
House Majority Leader Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, asked Thrasher if he views SOS as a one-year expenditure. He wondered if the expenditure could turn into a billion dollars over 10 years.
“I don’t know,” Thrasher responded. “If we come through this year, and we utilize that money — and I commit to you we would utilize that money as a businessperson would — and if we see more opportunities, I’m going to come back and ask for that money, or more or less, depending on what I think the needs are.
“I don’t really envision it being an ongoing hundred-million dollars a year. My gut feeling tells me this is jumpstarting this economy. The governor thinks boldly, and I very much believe in his approach at this particular moment in West Virginia’s history. This economy, we have got to jumpstart it.”