We continue today with a look back at the top news stories in West Virginia in 2017. Today, five through one.
5) The Justice administration announced in November a memorandum of understanding with China Energy for $84 billion in investments in West Virginia over the next two decades. The agreement was the largest among an estimated $250 million in deals signed by President Trump during his visit to Beijing. The West Virginia projects are expected to include natural gas power generation, chemical manufacturing and underground storage. Governor Justice said the pledged investment is so big that “it absolutely takes your breath away.” However, the announcement has been tempered somewhat by a lack of details on specific projects.
4) We learned last month about previously undisclosed extravagant spending by the West Virginia Supreme Court on office remodeling and furnishings. The most talked about examples were a $32,000 couch and $7,500 for a specially designed inlaid wooden floor in the shape of the state in the office of Chief Justice Allen Loughry, and $28,000 for two luxury rugs as part of a $500,000 tab for remodeling Justice Robin Davis’s office. But all the Justices had expensive furnishings that focused attention on the fact that the Legislature does not have oversight of the Judiciary’s budget. Legislative leaders say they will try to change that in 2018.
3) Many of West Virginia’s roads are so bad that a couple of years ago, I started an on-air campaign called #FTDR—Fix the Damn Roads. Finally in 2017 the state did something about the crumbling infrastructure. Governor Justice proposed a $1.6 billion dollar road bond, and he crisscrossed the state to push for passage, calling it “the biggest election in the history of the state.” Voters bought in, with 73 percent voting for passage. Combined with a leveraging of federal dollars and a planned increase in turnpike tolls, West Virginia will undertake one of the largest road and bridge building and repair efforts ever starting in 2018.
2) West Virginia’s finances were tight in 2017. Governor Justice and legislative leaders quarreled for weeks about the budget. The debate continued throughout the regular session and then carried over into a 20-day-long special session. At one point, a frustrated Justice even dramatically unveiled a platter of bull manure that he said represented one of the budget proposals. The debate was often acrimonious, straining relationships and triggering name calling, particularly by the Governor. Finally on June 16, the House and Senate agreed on a $4.225 billion budget, which Justice allowed to go into law without his signature.
1) Jim Justice ran for Governor in 2016 as a non-traditional candidate. He repeatedly cited his business experience over his political acumen. He won the election and on January 16th was sworn in as the state’s 36th Governor. Justice brought his cheerleading can-do style to the Governor’s office, as well as a rejection of any action he deemed as political. His candid “with-me-or-against-me” approach won converts, but also ran afoul of a number of Legislators who saw Justice as hard-headed and uncompromising. Justice then turned the political structure of the state on its head later in the year when he switched from the Democratic to Republican Party. “Like it or not, but the Democrats walked away from me,” Justice said. “… West Virginia, I can’t help you anymore by being a Democratic Governor.” We’ll see how the change of heart, and party, plays out in 2018.