CHARLESTON, W.Va. — If Gov. Jim Justice is trying to identify a daily way to get under the Legislature’s skin, he now has a very useful tool.
The doorway outside the governor’s reception room now has a “budget clock” that ticks down the days, hours and minutes until the end of the legislative session. The governor’s website has a similar clock smack dab in the middle of its homepage.
The clock at the Capitol is actually displayed on a Sony flatscreen television connected to a computer. The power cord runs into a nearby closet. It’s positioned beside another display of Justice’s State of the State speech — the one where he says he’ll work with his new friends the legislators — and near a portrait of Justice’s family with five dogs.
Wednesday marked 38 days until the regular session ends April 8. Thursday would represent 37 days to the end.
If you want to know more about that trend, you’ve gotta look at the clock.
In a statement released by the governor’s office, Justice said, “The clock is ticking, the session is almost halfway finished and the Legislature still hasn’t come up with a budget. I’ve already released two plans that put West Virginia on a pathway to prosperity.”
The statement continued, “This budget crisis won’t be solved by wasting time. I want the people of West Virginia to realize that the Legislature is on the clock and needs to get moving. The last thing we need is a long special session that wastes $35,000 a day.”
The Justice administration is doing something almost every day to highlight how the state is or isn’t coping with the estimated half-billion dollar budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year. Last year, facing a significant but smaller shortfall, the Legislature had to go into an extended special session.
Last week, the governor put out a news release touting a bill that would enable him to furlough state employees in the event of a financial crisis. A day later, the administration put out another release to promote legislation that would limit legislative pay to five days in the event of a special session on the budget.
Along the way, the governor has called out legislative “knuckleheads” for their skepticism of his budget proposal. And on statewide radio last week, he compared Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns to a barking poodle over social media criticism of the governor’s proposals.
So now comes the countdown.
Well, sure enough, here’s the fiscal doomsday clock pic.twitter.com/rM9kPhvKiq
— Brad McElhinny (@BradMcElhinny) March 1, 2017
The middle of next week marks the midway point of the 60-day session. Typically, the budget isn’t completed until a one-week special budget session the week after the regular session. But because of the size of the budget gap, this isn’t a normal year.
House and Senate leaders say they’re actually on a rapid pace to completing a budget. The House and Senate finance committees have broken into subcommittees to study particular sections of the budget. And the leaders of both houses say they’ll have a basic outline ready within a few days.
While the Republican majority has said it would like to first look at significant cuts to balance the budget, Justice has released two proposals — both heavy on tax increases — to bridge the upcoming fiscal gap.
Delegate Jim Butler, a member of the House Finance committee, was headed to a private meeting on the first floor of the Capitol when he walked past Justice’s countdown clock.
Butler, a Republican from Mason County, said the clock is evidence that Justice doesn’t understand how the legislative budgeting process works.
“It’s curious to me. It doesn’t really bother me,” said Butler, who had just wrapped up back to back finance committee meetings to go over the budgets of the state Auditor and the state Agriculture Commissioner.
“It actually shows me what the governor doesn’t know about the budget process. It takes the whole session. I’ve been here for four years, and all four years we don’t do the budget until he end because any legislation affects the budget. So to do one right now is completely out of the norm.”
Butler said the Legislature’s approach to the budget requires time to be detailed and careful.
“We have to hear what the departments are requesting, how much money they need. And then it is the legislative prerogative whether we give them what they request. And how do we make that decision if we don’t know what they’re requesting. We’re way ahead of the game from where we usually are. But obviously it’s not fast enough for the governor, so we’ll keep working on it.”
By early evening on Day 1 of the countdown clock’s appearance, the state Republican Party had responded. It introduced a clock of its own, meant to draw attention to the $4.4 million Justice’s coal companies reportedly owe in back taxes.
The GOP’s clock counts “Days Since Jim Justice Became Governor & Hasn’t Paid His Taxes.”
“Jim Justice has flat-out lied. To media, to voters and to the future of West Virginia. He claimed he’d pay his taxes. He hasn’t,” stated West Virginia Republican Party Chairman Conrad Lucas. “Now, after telling voters for a year that he opposed tax increases, his first move is a $450 million tax increase? He’s untrustworthy and someone in whom citizens can have zero faith.”