CHARLESTON, W.Va. — With less than two weeks left in the 2017 Regular Legislative Session, Governor Jim Justice is hopeful all sides will come to a budget agreement ahead of the July start of a fiscal year that comes with a projected $500 million budget shortfall.
“We’re moving. We’re moving in the right direction,” Governor Jim Justice said during a Monday radio town hall on MetroNews “Talkline.”
For an hour Monday morning, Justice took questions directly from West Virginia residents via phone calls and text messages.
“I don’t think anybody’s going to get dug in and I think we’re going to all sit and good ideas are going to come out and we’re going to go with those good ideas and we’re going to get this thing done.”
Largely spared in it are funding for public education, higher education and the state Department of Health and Human Resources.
Since the session’s start, Justice has offered a couple of budget plans with roughly $450 million in revenue measures coupled with $26 million in cuts and said the latest proposal from the House appeared to be a step in that direction.
“I don’t care who gets credit for what,” Justice said. “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if it’s a step in my direction, a step in their direction, we need it to be a step in the right direction.”
In the House bill, $158 million in new revenues come from a proposed tax reform bill that was scheduled to be taken Monday up on 2nd reading with amendments.
The bill broadens the tax base by eliminating a list of sales tax exemptions, reduces the sales tax to five percent, returns the food tax at three percent and establishes a 5.1 percent flat income tax.
“I am not a fan of the food tax and the reason I’m not is because I think it hurts the most — the weakest,” Governor Justice said Monday.
He’s also opposed to the proposal to refinance the Teachers Retirement System debt to provide an extra $70 million in the coming year’s state budget. As proposed, the plan includes steps to potentially pay the debt down quicker, but critics have argued it would ultimately cost West Virginia $1.5 billion.
“We can’t do that because, mathematically, that’s suicidal. We cannot do that and we’ve got to find a way to plug the teachers’ pay raise back in without doing that,” Governor Justice said.
A two percent pay raise for classroom teachers is now tied to that bill.
The House budget, as detailed Saturday, included $15 million for Justice’s “Save Our State” Fund for tourism and economic investments next year, down from the $35 million he’d requested in a revised proposal.
“It would be nice if we could settle somewhere around $20 million and maybe find some other discretionary monies that we could prop that up because that’s just the marketing of our state and it needs to be done really, really badly,” he told Hoppy Kercheval.
Up for passage Monday in the Senate was the bill discontinuing the West Virginia Greyhound Breeding Development Fund which Justice has opposed.
However, he noted, “I’m not going to let the dogs stand in the way of getting a deal done to where we have a good, comprehensive, sound budget.”
Additional questions Monday covered fraud investigations for state benefit programs, county government consolidation, RESA eliminations, right to work, Turnpike tolls, state worker pay raises, minimum wage hikes, the proposed gas tax increase and name calling.
“People might not like me being so blunt, but I call it like I see it,” Justice said. “I don’t care if someone calls me a walrus.”
Monday’s “Talkline” town hall was the 2nd such appearance from Governor Justice since the start of the 2017 Regular Legislative Session in February.
No date has yet been set for a similar event featuring Senate President Mitch Carmichael (R-Jackson, 04) and House Speaker Tim Armstead (R-Kanawha, 40).
The session’s last day is Saturday, Apr. 8.
Wednesday, March 29 is Crossover Day — that is the final day a bill can come out of either the Senate or House, its introduction point in the Legislature, to continue to be considered.