Candidate Jim Justice promised he would be a different kind of Governor, and he has been so far. What is unclear after five months is whether his style and method of governing will be successful.
The early results are mixed.
Justice did manage to win approval for a massive highway plan that, at minimum, will generate another $130 million annually for road construction. The total new spending on roads could reach between $2.5 billion and $2.8 billion if voters approve a bond issue on Saturday, Oct. 7.
The Governor already deserves credit for making the state’s decaying infrastructure a priority. If he can help win approval for the bond issue then he will have a signature accomplishment for the first year of his administration.
However, the Governor’s budget plan flopped. He initially proposed $450 million in tax increases to avoid cuts as well as pay for new spending on a classroom teacher pay raise and a Save Our State investment fund. By the time the regular session and a three week long special session ended, the tax increases were gone, as were his spending initiatives.
The Legislature settled on a $4.2 billion budget. Justice decided to let it become law without his signature. “I can’t possibly put my name on it,” Justice said during a press conference last week.
Okay, but the Governor could not resist parting shots at lawmakers whom he battled with. “I don’t know if Jesus himself could bring this bunch together,” he said. Justice questioned the House leadership, both Republican and Democrat. “I’m really, really disappointed with the Democrats because they were family.”
House Minority Leader Tim Miley (D-Harrison) fumed. “I could be personal, but I’m not going to be. I know it’s his first time as Governor,” Miley said on Talkline. “But for him to blame everyone but himself is a problem that’s going to follow him the next three years.”
“Every time I hear the Governor blame everybody but himself I feel like I’m in junior high school,” Miley said.
Justice operates without a filter, and that is often refreshing. The last election on both the state and national level showed voters were worn out with politics as usual and political correctness. They wanted a shake-up in the political establishment, and they got it.
But being forthright does not mean one has to abandon discretion. Justice’s outspokenness, while often novel, sometimes makes his job more difficult. It is possible for him to temper his insults without kowtowing to those who have differing views, or even those he sees as obstinate.
It’s worth noting that the longer the budget debate continued, the less the Governor got of what he wanted. It’s naïve for Justice to not accept some responsibility for that.
Justice’s relentless optimism and willingness to abandon past political narratives still hold promise. The people elected him because he gave them hope of a different path forward and a vision for what West Virginia could be, not a continuation of what it has been.
However, there is a learning curve to governing; the success of the Justice administration and ultimately the state for the next three-and-a-half years will depend on whether the Governor is willing to make an accurate accounting of his successes and failures and apply that knowledge going forward.