CHARLESTON, W.Va. — During his State of the State speech, Gov. Jim Justice advocated for a “Save Our State” fund that could be used to promote infrastructure and economic development. The initial proposal was valued at $105 million.
Over the next few weeks, Justice conceded that the proposal could get by with less. He cut the concept to $35 million a year over three years.
Even at that, legislators expressed skepticism that the state could afford any extra expense while up against an estimated half-billion budget gap for the coming fiscal year.
But when a first-glimpse budget was revealed Saturday during a session of the House Finance Committee, SOS made the cut, although at a significantly reduced amount — $15 million.
House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson said Saturday that SOS made the first blush of the budget because it’s worth trying.
“It’s in there for that reason,” said Nelson, R-Kanawha. “A little give and take for everybody. There are components of that, listening to Secretary Thrasher. We need to promote our state, economic development and diversification. That’s one tool towards that.”
Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher has been the governor’s ambassador for SOS. Speaking early last week after a gathering of state tourism leaders, Thrasher said SOS will give his Commerce department an additional tool to try to promote economic development in West Virginia.
Thrasher said he would divide the funding into two pots — one to promote tourism and the other to help the state Development Office.
“Improve sites, put in utilities, workforce training, finance equipment — those fundamental things that we still hold the first lien on,” Thrasher said. “Using that money to up the availability of shovel-ready sites.”
He continued by saying, “Equally important are manufacturing sites, back end office sites — flat property and buildings that provide a place where we can immediately locate businesses that want to locate to West Virginia.
“We know there’s an abundance of those entities. We lack the ability to capitalize on them.”
Thrasher said the investment will pay off.
“If we have that, we will get more than our fair share,” he said. “There is the money if we raise it. If you raise that money and invest it you’re going to get a rate of return o that investment and that’s going to save West Virginia.”
Thrasher concluded, “To me, it’s a deal everybody should be happy to take.”
The rough-draft budget that was presented Saturday in House Finance could be altered in any number of ways over the final two weeks of the Legislative session.
It relies on some revenue measures that still could be voted down. The Finance Committee was expecting to start work on a budget bill Monday afternoon or Tuesday morning and could alter the details. The broader House will have a say. And then the Senate will have its own budget vision.
Last Monday, Senate President Mitch Carmichael described himself as intrigued by SOS but skeptical of the use of significant state money. Carmichael was still hoping to hear more specifics about how they money might be used.
“I don’t think we have been given any information upon which to expend a massive amount of money such as that. The governor asked for it, he titles it ‘Save our State’ and says ‘trust me,’ basically,” Carmichael, R-Jackson, said during a broader-ranging interview in his office.
“I want to give this governor every benefit of the doubt, and Woody Thrasher is an awesome, great, wonderful pick to lead that department. I think he will do so in an effective manner. Stage one has to be ‘These are the necessary reasons we need this money.’ I do not believe that case has been made.”
But Carmichael then added, “I will say this, we’re very receptive. I want to hear the case and I would love to be able to say this is an investment worth making for the citizens of West Virginia.
“If he is able to make that case I believe there are areas of the government we could find that money. If it’s truly a good return on investment, we won’t let it languish for lack of funds.”