The exercise of political power is often about leverage; using a particular circumstance to gain an advantage. Tuesday’s announcement by Moody’s that the state’s bond rating has been downgraded was used by both Democratic Governor Jim Justice and Republican leaders of the House and Senate to try to achieve an edge in the growing budget debate.
Justice, appearing sullen and distraught at the Tuesday press conference, said the downgrade makes him sick. “It’s just going to get worse,” Justice said. “It’s not going to get better if we don’t act.”
When the Governor says “act,” he means pass his proposals for $450 million in new taxes to balance next year’s budget and approve his plans for higher gas taxes, tolls and DMV fees to pay for a statewide road building and jobs program.
However, Republican leaders played the hand differently.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael blamed higher taxes and spending for the current budget dilemma and said it’s time to reverse course. “Years of fiscal mismanagement have led us this point,” Carmichael said in prepared statement. “The bond downgrade underscores the urgency and the need for fundamental reform and a new direction for West Virginia.”
House Speaker Tim Armstead sounded a similar alarm. “The failed tax-and-spend policies of the past will not solve this problem. We need bold leadership to right-size our state government and restructure our tax code in a way that promotes growth,” he said in a release.
So, everyone agrees we have a gigantic budget challenge, but at this point the Governor and the Republican leadership are diametrically opposed on the best way to solve the crisis.
The growing separation between the two spilled over onto the House and Senate floors Wednesday as Republicans and Democrats started choosing up sides on the budget debate. Democrats are demanding to see the Republican’s counter budget proposal and Republicans say they’re working on it.
The debate became particularly testy in the Senate when Republican Craig Blair railed on the Governor for pushing a tax increase while, according to an Associated Press report, Justice-owned companies still owe $4.4 million in unpaid taxes. “The same man that is asking all the rest of us” to pay higher taxes, Blair roared.
Kanawha County Democrat Corey Palumbo pushed back against the Republican view by saying partisan comments are not helpful to the process. “When I go out there and talk to my constituents, they’re tired of this kind of stuff. They’re tired of the finger-pointing , they’re tired of the partisan politics, they want us to work together to solve these problems.”
So it’s beginning to get a little chippy under the Capitol dome, and that’s to be expected. The deferential tone of the early days of the session was never going to last. But this still a warm up. Soon Republicans will unveil their budget plan, which will be very different from the plan Justice has put forward.
That’s when things will get interesting.