CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice told a group of elections workers in a training session that he’s counting on them for passage of the statewide road bond.
“You hold everything right now in your hands, and I beg you to talk to any and everybody you may talk to and convince them that this is the beginning. This is not the end, this is the beginning,” Justice said, touting the thousands of jobs he has said will be created through a major set of highways projects.
County clerks and their employees are meant to be neutral officials ensuring fair and smooth elections, such as the Oct. 7 vote that could authorize the sale of up to $1.6 billion of road bonds. That amount is part of an overall $3 billion bonding effort the state could undertake for road improvements.
Justice spoke to the clerks and other county elections officials during a statewide training session at Canaan Valley. The session, officially called the election officials conference, is a two-day, biannual event meant to help ensure smooth elections. Justice announced his willingness to advance $1 million to help pay for the cost of the road bond election.
The governor stopped at the training session prior to continuing a “Roads to Prosperity” appearance later Monday afternoon in Elkins at the West Virginia Wood Technology Institute.
Justice speaks off the cuff, without notes, and can often repeat key points and phrases from appearance to appearance. His remarks in Canaan Valley were similar to those he has made at other “Roads to Prosperity” stops, but the audience was different.
— Governor Jim Justice (@WVGovernor) September 11, 2017
The governor began his comments at the training session by thanking the county clerks for all their hard work, including for the special bond election, which falls on a Saturday.
He then spoke about the reasons he believes voting in favor of the bond issue is vital and told the clerks their role is important.
“We’re on our way right now, but I really need you. You hold the key right now, and I know it’s a burden that I’ve laid on your back. And this man is championing it,” Justice said, possibly referring to Secretary of State Mac Warner. “But literally, you have the responsibility to move our state.”
West Virginia has a lot riding on the results of the bond vote, said Justice, who has long touted the economic benefits of an ambitious road construction package.
“How great would it be if we made an education mecca in West Virginia? How great would it be if we weren’t the blunt end of a lot of bad jokes? How great would it be if the world on the outside said West Virginia is where you need to go?” Justice told the clerks.
“We have an opportunity here that is enormous. The biggest single opportunity that you have in your work life is right in front of you.”
More than 150 elections workers from all 55 counties are registered for the conference, said Mike Queen, communications director for the Secretary of State’s office. That includes 47 clerks.
Queen said the governor was invited to the event because he’d planned to be in nearby Elkins anyway and because his message of appreciation was important to clerks.
Asked in a telephone interview if some of the governor’s more political statements about the bond vote were appropriate considering the audience, Queen said the comments went a little farther than he thought they would.
“Of course he got into the specifics of the bond a little bit more than I thought he would, but he’s betting his governorship on the bond,” Queen said.
“I don’t think he crossed the line because he’s pretty passionate. Had he asked people to raise their hands vote for or against it I think that would have crossed the line.”
Queen said local voters with questions about the bond vote are likely to call their county clerks, who need to be armed with information. Queen noted that the elections workers were able to ask the governor questions and responded by asking about issues such as whether enough information has been provided.
“He was asked some pretty tough questions,” Queen said. “Locally, people call their county clerks. People want information.”
Justice was just as up front with the clerks as he has been with other groups about his desire to see the road bond pass.
“I can tell you this, this road bond referendum — the idea of our roads is our ticket. There is nothing — I don’t care what you may say — there is nothing that you’ve ever done in your work life that is more important than this,” Justice told the elections workers.
“And the reason I say that is just this: The only revenue that we put back into the budget this year was one thing, and that was expected economic gains from our highways and our roads. What are we going to do? Now if you’re willing to see the next school closed or some of your coworkers laid off or you having to pull three times the rope you’re pulling today or government cuts for the weak or the sick, whatever it may be — if you want to see it constrict more then you’ve got to convince people to go out against this.
“If you want to see West Virginia really move then this is a given, and this is so important it’s unbelievable.”
Justice told the elections workers that he would like for them to spread the word that the Legislature has already provided the funding mechanism through increased taxes and fees to pay back the bond.
“But you’ve got to tell your people. You’ve got to tell them this. You’ve got to tell them two things in my opinion: Most of the time when you’re voting for a bond or a levy you’re voting for a tax increase. This has nothing to do with any tax increase at all. The buckets are already done,” the governor said.
“The only other thing I would tell you is if you vote no, you’re going to just bloat government. You’re going to have money coming in to the government that they’re going to pee away and not spend on your roads.”
Justice expanded on that point, saying the increased money flowing in from increased gas taxes and DMV fees passed by the Legislature earlier this year could be squandered if the bond doesn’t pass.
Legislators who supported those increases said they would pay for long-needed road repairs right away.
“If the bond referendum fails, you know what government is going to do? They’re going to spend your money and you’re not going to get your roads done,” said Justice, who is the chief of the executive branch.
“Every fiber in me is saying to you your taxes will not go up. But if it fails I promise you this, government will squander away your money and you won’t get your roads fixed. And you won’t get more tourism and you won’t get manufacturing.”
Justice was asked about efforts to provide information to the public. Groups backing the bond got organized just a couple of weeks ago and are still getting an advertising campaign under way.
The governor noted that the governor’s office is limited in what it can say and how it says it.
“There’s an independent group, not the governor’s office. We’re checking this out. But I think the governor’s office can expend government money to put out informational information, like a TV ad that would say here’s what the informational information is. Not a campaign to vote for this or not. But ‘This is the information.’ Well, we’re doing that. We’re right now in the process of making commercials.
“And the independent expenditure, the people that are outside of government are also doing commercials and preparing direct mail and all that kind of stuff. We’re scrambling. Everybody’s scrambling,” Justice said.