CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Governor Jim Justice gathered his girls basketball team from Greenbrier East High School around him at the state Capitol, using them as an example of teamwork.
“One. Two. Three. West Virginia!” the team members shouted, joining their hands in the air.
Justice may be the only governor in America who also serves as a high school basketball coach. He told an audience of lawmakers, state officials and Supreme Court justices that experience serves him well.
“The people of West Virginia are the players. I coach for them,” Justice told the crowd.
During his Second State of the State address, Justice said that attitude has helped lead the state closer to economic prosperity.
He contrasted the sunnier economic position the state seems to be moving toward with the multimillion dollar budget holes the state dealt with in recent years.
As his pep talk began, Justice unveiled one of his signature whiteboards that had a diagram of red, signifying the deficits of recent years.
At the speech’s close, he asked his basketball team to pull away a black sheet that unveiled a second whiteboard depicting a black bar chart looking toward budget surpluses in coming years.
There were other rhetorical flourishes too — many of them call backs from a year ago.
He brought back the ax and tackle box that he’d displayed at his inaugural address. They were props to tell a story about a West Virginia resident who was so poorly off that she had to sell some of her few earthly possessions. Justice said the ax and tackle box were still with him, as was the priority of helping citizens.
And he put a twist on the Frankenstein’s monster story with which he had closed last year’s State of the State. In the first instance, he moaned and said those who couldn’t get out of the monster’s way deserved to die, meaning the state had to do something about its dire economy. In that instance, Justice proposed a tax hike.
This year, he described Dr. Frankenstein assessing the monster: “It’s alive.”
Now, Justice said, West Virginia’s economy is showing signs of life.
Finally, he ended last year’s session by vetoing a budget that cut state agencies. The governor used a flourish capped off by the revelation of bovine excrement on a platter.
This year, he provided four platters to the leaders of both legislative houses and parties. Inside each was an enormous Hershey Kiss.
“Can we stop where we’re at? Of course not. Can we get in our own way? Absolutely,” Justice said.
But he said the state needs to continue to make progress.
He said the situation has improved enough that he is confident in new spending proposals, including small pay raises for state employees, additional money for the Tourism and Commerce agencies, investment in a new State Trooper cadet class and a subsidy for community and technical education.
Justice also wants to cut a tax, gradually phasing out property taxes for industrial manufacturers.
“Just Cut Taxes and Win,” Justice said, referencing an acronym that prompts a standing ovation from Republicans.
And the governor briefly advocated for a variety of legislation dealing with natural gas, including policies referred to as co-tenancy and lease integration. Of the two, co-tenancy appears to have the most momentum going into the legislative session.
He proposed raises for state employees, including teachers, of 1 percent over a period of years.
“Today we know there’s enough money in the budget to give every single person in state government a raise,” Justice said.
West Virginia observers who deal with budgetary policy expressed caution — although from different points of view.
The West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, an economic think tank and lobbying group, said Justice should think twice about the tax cut and turn toward more support for education and social safety net programs.
“While many West Virginians are struggling to make ends meet and their communities continue to see a lack of investment, the Governor is proposing another round of special interest corporate tax cuts,” stated Ted Boettner, the director of the center.
“Instead of upside-down tax cuts that will likely shift the tax load onto working families, policymakers should be making investments in schools, colleges, broadband, and health care that provide a foundation for a shared prosperity.”
Americans for Prosperity West Virginia, which advocates for tax cuts, praised Justice’s vow for no new taxes but also warned state officials not to be too enamored by new spending.
“Free market, pro-growth reforms adopted by principled lawmakers on the state and federal level have contributed to a better economic outlook for the Mountain State; however, this should not lead policymakers to a spending free-for-all. As always, our activists want lawmakers to have reasoned, fiscal restraint with their tax dollars,” stated Jason Huffman, the group’s state director.
For his part, Justice emphasized his desire to get everyone to work together.
He said his view of himself as the state’s coach has paid off so far.
“The only thing that I was able to bring you was, I was the coach,” he told the crowd at the Capitol.