CHARLESTON, W.Va. — What will Jim Justice do?
That’s the big question remaining about the state budget that legislators passed late Friday.
The weekend passed without a news release being sent out from the governor’s office, without a tweet from @WVgovernor and without a public appearance to gauge the governor’s view.
It’s possible the governor was out in a field somewhere, looking for an appropriate prop to express his sentiment. It’s also possible the governor and his staff were examining the budget’s details before rendering an opinion.
Either way, the state is right up on the Monday deadline that leaders had described as the drop-dead date to have a budget plan that would continue to guarantee state payroll.
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Last week, as the deadline approached, the governor was asked what he would do about a budget that cuts state programs.
The governor didn’t exactly say, expressing concern that state employees should be able to continue to work.
“We’re going to run up on a deadline, and if we run up on a deadline, you’ve got me faced with major cuts,” Justice said last Wednesday.
“Well, why are we doing this? Why are we hurting people when we don’t have to hurt ’em?”
The budget that passed out of the Legislature late Friday definitely wasn’t the one Justice had preferred.
At loggerheads over whose revenue plan was the best, the Senate and House of Delegates wound up choosing neither.
The Senate’s would have raised the sales tax to 6.5 percent but in turn cut the income tax by an average 20 percent over four years.
The House, which had shown never shown interest in the income tax cuts, rejected that plan and again put forth its proposal to broaden what economic sectors are subject to sales tax.
With no agreement on a path to raise revenue, the Senate and House went with a budget that spends only within the estimated $4.225 billion in revenue for the coming year.
That plan does keep Medicaid spending level through use of transfers and expected surpluses. And this version of the budget cuts higher education by an estimated $16 million.
The higher education spending reduction caused outcry among Democrats — and also raised some misgivings among Republicans.
But in the end, most lawmakers said they were finally up against deadline and had to get something passed, even if it wasn’t perfect. They passed what they passed and adjourned until June 26.
Justice had preferred a budget of $4.35 billion, which would have required tax increases of some sort.
The budget bill that did pass doesn’t have the governor’s preferred State of the State funding, a teacher payraise or his tiered coal severance tax proposal.
Separate bills with funding for the governor’s roads package passed. Those bills — which will lead to higher DMV fees, a higher floor on the fluctuating wholesale gas tax and a higher luxury tax on vehicle purchases, as well as increased tolling capacity — affect the Road Fund, rather than the General Revenue Fund.
Last Wednesday, Justice was thinking about what he could accept versus the amount of time remaining to avoid a shutdown.
“I could veto it today. I can’t veto something two days from the deadline,” Justice had said with a few days still remaining before the drop-dead date.
“I’ve got to protect our state, and shutting down our state would be one tough pill to swallow. Not saying that you wouldn’t do it, but it would just be one tough pill to swallow. It would just hurt more and more and more people.”
Justice later said, though, that under some circumstances he might have to make that decision.
“If it comes to me at the 11th hour then you’ve got a really tough decision to make,” he said Wednesday.
“You’re either going to sign it and sign devastation or you’re going to shut the government down and who knows where you’re going to go. Are you going to get a better deal? Are you going to hurt all the people who are losing their jobs? Jiminy Christmas.”
During the campaign last fall, Justice expressed wonder that state government’s problems could be so hard for others to solve.
“This job is not that hard. That’s a heck of a ball team. You just have to have someone who can go out and sell our state,” Justice said during a gubernatorial debate with Republican candidate Bill Cole.
Last week, Justice said that might have been a miscalculation. He expressed frustration at his fellow elected leaders.
“It’s a thousand times harder than I ever expected it to be,” the governor said. “It all centers around this: and this is both sides. It all centers around the common sense and the good of West Virginia doesn’t matter.
“There’s too many here that they don’t care about anything other than trying to one-up the other side. Or: ‘How do I perceive this in a way that will get me re-elected?’ Really, and truly that’s the driver of the whole thing.”