CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice has pushed for a big West Virginia highways project since his State of the State speech, and voters gave him his wish in a big way.
Unofficial results from the West Virginia Secretary of State’s office showed about a 3-1 margin in favor of the $1.6 billion bond issue.
Shortly after 11 p.m. Saturday, with 100 percent of precincts reporting, the Secretary of State’s office showed 87,751 in favor of the bond and 37,759 against it.
By then an hour had passed since Justice went to the front of a roomful of supporters and declared victory on his signature issue.
“Great, doing good, how are y’all doing?” the governor commented as he made his way to the front of the Governor’s Reception room at the state Capitol.
For weeks, Justice crossed the state, participating in town halls and taking questions — some friendly and some critical — from West Virginia residents.
“Everybody’s wondering what’s next. I’m going to Disney World,” Justice said. “What a night. What a night for everyone in West Virginia. And I can’t thank the voters enough. I mean it from the bottom of my heart. They’ve spoken and they’ve spoken loudly. They’ve spoken with a mandate.
“They’ve spoken that they want jobs, they want opportunity, they want change, and they want hope.”
West Virginia has 1,222,562 registered voters.
So the 120,510 who voted represented about 11 percent. There are still provisional ballots to be counted.
“Today, the people of West Virginia let their voice be known in voting for or against passage of this amendment,” stated Secretary of State Mac Warner. “Low turnout on this important issue to West Virginia is disappointing, but we express our thanks to those registered voters who came out today, and during early voting, as well as those who sent in absentee ballots.”
Still, Justice was thrilled.
“The voters spoke, did they not? They spoke. And they spoke — and I am so happy for our state in every single way,” Justice said.
In the room with Justice were many of the supporters of the road bond, including Senate President Mitch Carmichael, Transportation Secretary Tom Smith, Chris Hamilton of the West Virginia Business and Industry Council and Mike Clowser of the Contractors Association of West Virginia.
Carmichael also said he was thrilled that West Virginia voters passed the bond measure.
“Let me thank you, governor, for your leadership on this issue,” Carmichael, R-Jackson, said while standing at the front of the reception room with Justice. “This was your vision as you came to office, to put people back to work, to fix the roads in this state and have no new taxes associated with it.”
The Legislature this spring actually passed about $130 million in higher gasoline tax, higher DMV fees and a higher sales tax on new automobile purchases, all meant to be the funding mechanism for the bond sales.
But critics of the road bond issue wanted assurances that taxes wouldn’t be raised beyond that over the 25-year period of the bond.
“This is a great night for the people of West Virginia, and I want to thank them for being brave and putting aside all the negative undertones of those who have tried to demean this project,” Carmichael said. “This is frankly the easiest vote a person could cast — more jobs, better roads, no new taxes.”
— Brad McElhinny (@BradMcElhinny) October 8, 2017
Up next, Justice suggested at his news conference, is likely to be a special session relating to the upcoming highways work.
“Well, we want to fine tune that but we probably are, and one thing we want to address is the bureaucracy and red tape that takes so ever long to be able to hire people and get people in position. You’ll find out more about that in the near days to come,” Justice said.
Transportation Secretary Smith agreed that more work is right ahead.
“On Friday we sat down and did our scenario planning for what we’ll be doing immediately when we get back to work next week,” Smith said following Justice’s remarks. “We know we need to be providing some structure and transparency to the entire program so folks know what projects are moving forward first, what the costs are.
“We also know we’re getting our pay-as-you-go program, which is where we’re getting the secondary system routes. We’re going to focus on having a good year of that where we’re getting the smaller projects out.”
Meanwhile, work on preparing for the projects to be directly funded by the bond measure will be ongoing.
“All at the same time we’ll be working on these much bigger projects and getting these bonds sold. The bonds will be sold about June of next year, and at that point we’ll be having these big projects — probably about $700 million to $800 million ready to go out the door in the June timeframe.”
Smith said more work is also directly ahead through other means of funding West Virginia’s infrastructure projects.
“The governor’s program relies on the general obligation bonds to do the most expensive projects. We really needed that to be able to do the other parts of the program,” Smith said.
“But what you may not know is at the end of this month we have $260 million in Garvee bonds. Those are bonds backed by our federal aid funds. Those are going to be sold the last week of October. That’s the single biggest bond sale for transportation in the state’s history. It’s kind of happening quietly. But we’ve got about 30 projects going out — bridge replacements and interstate reconstruction. Those projects will start as early as this fall. So you’re going to have a whole range of projects starting immediately.”
Justice was already looking ahead to something else: His belief that the vote and the massive highways work will bump West Virginia forward in a variety of national well-being rankings.
“Absolutely, we are on our way to being something other than 50th,” Justice said. “And being first is what I think we ought to be.”