Photos courtesy WV Division of Culture and History/Perry Bennett
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — With his folksy drawl and only sometimes looking at notes, new Governor Jim Justice used his inauguration speech to back big plans for West Virginia, including the possibilities of a federal subsidy he hopes would help the timber industry, a bond he believes could provide billions for the state’s infrastructure and potential cuts to the state bureaucracy.
“We can do it,” Justice said at the conclusion of his speech after becoming West Virginia’s 36th governor. “We will do it. It’s time for us to claim our place. It is truly West Virginia’s time.”
Justice’s proposals didn’t yet have details laid out for how they would work, but there’s time for that. His State of the State speech, where the governor usually lays out policy positions, will be Feb. 8 when the Legislature gavels into session again.
“I’m open to every new idea, every new idea,” he said.
One source of help, he said, might come from the White House after President-elect Donald Trump is inaugurated on Friday. Although Justice is a Democrat and Trump is a Republican, they share common ground as billionaire businessmen who campaigned on change and economic development.
“I truly believe he will provide us with some opportunities,” Justice said. “We’ve got to have jobs, hope, opportunities.”
On Monday, Justice and the crowd that gathered outside the Capitol celebrated his election victory while Justice touted the think-big philosophy he had repeated through his campaign.
Justice, a Democrat who owns The Greenbrier resort, coal mines and a big farming operation, was estimated by Forbes to be West Virginia’s richest man, worth $1.6 billion.
So this wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill inauguration.
“I can think of no better person than Jim Justice to take the reins,” departing Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said. “Jim has a big sky vision for West Virginia’s future. I know he is all-in, all-out committed to that vision.”
Because of Justice’s close connections to The Greenbrier and Greenbrier County, the whole inauguration celebration took on the flavor of that area. Green-clad athletes from Greenbrier East High School, where Justice also serves as the boys and girls basketball coach, were among the VIP’s on the stairs.
Elementary school students from Greenbrier County led the Pledge of Allegiance. A worker from The Greenbrier, Haley Burns, sang “The Wind Beneath My Wings” in honor of Justice’s father, James Conley Justice.
Justice said his mother and father, looking down from heaven, would be proud of him but also might wonder what had gotten into his head: “What on earth are you doing?” he jokingly imagined them saying.
Speaking on the steps of the Capitol with moderate temperatures and partly cloudy skies, Justice told the crowd, “I’ll speak to you directly from my heart.”
The basketball coach said he runs the same play over and over in life. It starts with God, goes to his family, moves to his co-workers and then to youth. “Then I run the play over,” he said.
“All I want is goodness for this incredible state and its incredible people.”
He said the struggle of West Virginians has touched him on a personal level. From underneath the podium, he pulled out a tackle box and an ax, saying he had come across a woman who was selling them, among her only possessions, for money just to get by. “Mister, you don’t have any idea how bad I’m hurting,” Justice said the woman told him.
Justice said he had bought them for a hundred dollars and now carries them in his trunk as a reminder of her plight.
He acknowledged broader challenges — in particular the state budget hole that’s been estimated at about $400 million.
“We have a big hole,” he said. “We have an incredible crisis. We’ve got a lot of work in front of us.”
Naming state leaders like Senate President Mitch Carmichael and House Speaker Tim Armstead by their first names, he said he would look at them as friends, no matter their party, to help with West Virginia’s challenges.
“I want to just be Jimmy. Jimmy is always nice,” Justice said. “You really don’t want to see James.”
He hit the high notes of other agenda items he would like to achieve:
- On education, Justice said West Virginia’s teachers are underpaid and bureaucracy too often gets in the way. He said he will submit an education plan that “eliminates unnecessary agencies,” although he didn’t, in the moment, elaborate on what that could mean.
- On energy, he said “coal and gas are the 800-pound gorillas in the room.” He said “when the companies are really hurting, I say we try to help. When companies are really winning, we’ve got to take more too.”
- He said he will talk to Senators Joe Manchin, a Democrat, and Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican — as well as Trump — about a timber subsidy aimed at helping the state’s forestry industry while recognizing the role of forests in curbing carbon dioxide emissions. “What our trees are doing for this world is unbelievable.”
- He wants to raise more money for infrastructure by finding a way to pool about $225 million — and he said that doesn’t have to be via tax increase — to then take out a loan from Wall Street investors, resulting in about $1.4 billion. “I know this stuff,” he said. He later added, “You can begin highway construction tomorrow like you can’t imagine.”
- He said West Virginia’s tourism and agriculture markets haven’t reached their potential — but that they could with investments and encouragement.