CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice said he was glad when legislators finally went home after a long special session to deal with the state budget.
But now the governor says he’s on the verge of calling legislators back to the Capitol.
“I promise you I’m going to do this. I’m calling them back. And I’m going to call them back really soon,” Justice said last week to a crowd in McDowell County, where he was promoting his highways construction package.
Two pieces of legislation are on the governor’s mind.
One is a state personal income tax exemption for military veterans living in West Virginia. This one was considered by the Legislature in the spring and seemed to have support but got tangled up in more controversial legislation. The estimated cost is $3 million.
The other is a 5 percent fee that would be paid by contractors with winning bids on roads construction projects. The money would be diverted toward programs to fight West Virginia’s opioid problems.
“That 5 percent fee, we need to bucket every dime of that to combat the drug epidemic,” Justice said in McDowell County.
“Do you know how much money it would have been to combat what you’re talking about? $150 million.
“We could have fixed the drug epidemic in this state with treatment facilities and social workers and law enforcement and on and on and on. You can’t fix that problem that you’re talking about with a band aid and an aspirin. You can’t do it.”
No official word has gone out to legislators about the governor’s stated desire for a special session.
But some legislators who were asked for reaction expressed a couple of concerns.
One is the desire to make sure there’s consensus before embarking on another special session so soon after the one that dragged on for 21 days.
And the other is whether a fee on contractors is really the best path to generating much-needed funding for the opioid addiction fight.
“I would hope we would have some kind of consensus before we come into session,” Brent Boggs, a Democrat from Braxton County, said in a telephone interview.
“That meter starts running and people see $35,000 a day. If we’re there during interims and it’s something we can handle, then it’s minimal. But when you go in and there’s no plan and no consensus, that’ concerns me.”
Boggs believes there will be solid support to eliminate state income tax for military veterans. He says he and others probably need to give more thought to the 5 percent fee on winning highways bids.
West Virginia definitely needs to provide additional resources to fight opiate addiction, Boggs said, but he wonders if direct funding might not be a better approach than a fee on highways projects.
“There have been some reservations raised about ‘Is that the best place to go for the funding?” Boggs said of conversations he’s had in his community. “Because some people, if they bid, might just add that on to the bid — and that means the roads money won’t go as far as it would otherwise.
He added his general support of greater funding for drug prevention, even if the funding mechanism winds up being tied to highways: “Whether it’s some revenue source or if it’s that we just have to do it.”
Delegate Marty Gearheart, a Republican from Mercer County, expressed serious doubts about tying the drug fight funding to highways projects.
“I don’t think a special session is necessary, and I don’t think his 5 percent fee has any life whatsoever,” Gearheart said in a telephone interview.
Gearheart clarified that he does believe more money likely needs to be spent fighting drug addiction problems — just not this way. He is the chairman of the House Roads and Transportation Committee.
“The 5 percent item, I think, is a nonstarter in the Legislature, so I don’t think it would have any life,” Gearheart said. “I’m not certain I understand the principal of it. Logically, one says if you add a 5 percent tax in their bidding their bid will be 5 percent higher, so it’s sort of taking it out of one hand and putting it in the other.
“If the governor wants to take 5 percent from state Road Fund and commit it to drug treatment, let’s be honest and go at it that way. I’m not sure I favor it either way.”
Gearheart said he is open to an income tax exemption for military veterans and thinks most legislators would be.
State Senator Glenn Jeffries, a Democrat from Putnam County, said he is receptive to both the special session and to the 5 percent fee.
“On the special session, it’s the governor’s call whether he wants to do that or not. We do have interims coming up in about two weeks. I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t try to incorporate that into the special session,” Jeffries said.
Jeffries said a 5 percent fee on construction projects to fight drugs is reasonable.
“The 5 percent fee, I believe in that. We both know we have this huge, huge opioid problem. That money will be used to fund drug treatment facilities,” Jeffries said.
Jeffries, who owns a commercial interior finishing business, said he thinks contractors can manage the additional fee.
“For a business owner, lots of times it depends on what the project is,” he said. “Sometimes a construction company will add the additional cost at the bottom line of his bid. Sometimes he may allow for only half of it. Then he takes the projects and hopes he will pick up that additional 2 and a half percent.”
Justice, appearing in McDowell County, expanded on his idea and described it as manageable.
“If you bid on a road job, you’ve got to incorporate in your bid a 5 percent bid that you’re going to have to pay, just like labor, fuel, everything in your bid,” Justice said.
For a $10 million job, a contractor would adjust a bid to account for the 5 percent, the governor said.
“So I’m going to go back, and I’m going to sharpen my pencil. I’ve got to get under $10 million,” Justice said.
“So you sharpen the pencil and take a little bit out of labor, a little bit out of fuel, a little bit out of parts, take a little bit out of how much your equipment payments are and you come to 9.9. You submit your bid at 9.9, and you get the bid. And you have to pay the 5 percent fee,” Justice said.
“We as a state could have gotten the 5 percent fee for almost nothing. And the contractors were all on board to do it. And the Legislature threw it all away.”
Justice, whose criticisms of the Legislature have been consistent and broad-ranging in a little more than a month since the last special session ended, said he will continue to pressure lawmakers.
“I’ve got to have the Legislature vote for things that just make good sense,” he said. “I mean, jiminy Christmas, how we could have thrown away that 5 percent fee, thrown it away, for nothing – for nothing. You can’t make it up in my book.”