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Governor Justice says he needs help persuading legislative ‘knuckleheads’

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Certainly West Virginia governors of the past have been in conflict with legislators, but rarely have governors called the elected representatives of the legislative branch “knuckleheads.”

Jim Justice is breaking ground in a lot of ways.

On Friday, while addressing a crowd during “Transportation Day” at the state Capitol, Governor Justice reached for just the right word to describe lawmakers who remain skeptical of his $2.8 billion infrastructure proposal.

“I’ve got to have you,” Justice, a newly-elected Democratic billionaire, told the crowd, asking for help to persuade legislators to support his plan that involves increased taxes, fees and bonding.

“I’ve got to have you tell a lot of knuckleheads that are stuck in the mud and saying no, no, no, no and they believe that you can constrict and constrict and every time now we constrict we’re cutting into the bone. And when we constrict, we will die.”

Justice went on to say, in evocative terms, that those who want increased funding for roads and bridges will have to fight.

“You want jobs, don’t you? And you want opportunity, don’t you?”

“That’s what I’m proposing for you today. That’s what I proposed in the State of the State. If we’ve got to take them and put them down on the ground and rub their nose in it, that’s what we’ve got to do. We can’t lose this battle here. If we lose this battle here, trust me it’s over. We’re going to win this.”

The Legislature’s leaders, Senate President Mitch Carmichael and House Speaker Tim Armstead, were not exactly out of listening range. They were next up to speak.

Carmichael went with it.

Mitch Carmichael

“As one of the knuckleheads, I just want to say it’s a pleasure to be with you,” said Carmichael, R-Jackson, drawing a laugh from the crowd of highways workers.

“No matter what is said or the appearances that come across, we’re going to work closely with this governor to advance an agenda that provides growth, jobs and opportunity for our citizens in West Virginia.”

Armstead, R-Kanawha, made no mention of the knucklehead comment but said the House supports infrastructure investment. He did say that if the investment in highways and bridges involves bonding, he believes state residents should have a say.

“What we are looking at is to make sure as we put this out to the voters in terms of funding for the roads that we would also put out to the roads the way we would fund that,” Armstead said. “Voters are owed that to know what would actually come out of their paychecks, out of their pockets.”

Justice’s relationship with the Legislature has been an issue to watch early in his administration. His background as chief executive of his family’s coal holdings, agriculture empire and The Greenbrier resort means he is accustomed to getting his way.

Before Justice even took office, he clashed with Carmichael via news release. Carmichael put out one expressing support for Justice’s plan for a budget without tax increases.

Sounds nice, but it expressed just one aspect of a Justice position that never really solidified during the campaign. Within a couple of hours, Justice’s transition team put out its own news release: “Justice Encourages State Leaders to Avoid Partisan Posturing.”

During his inaugural address, Justice talked about legislators as friends. He referenced Carmichael, Armstead, Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso and House Minority Leader Tim Miley by their first names during his inaugural address to indicate his affinity.

“I want to be someone you can talk to, you can reason with, that we’ll move forward with,” he said. “There are many, many people here. But there’s Mitch, there’s Tim, there’s another Tim. There’s Roman. Those people, I’m going to look at as friends,” he said.

During his State of the State, Justice did not propose a budget without tax increases. Instead, he proposed $450 million in “revenue enhancements,” mostly tax increases.

He said it’s what’s needed to return West Virginia to life, and he said state leaders will have to work together to accomplish that. Justice did so by again referencing legislative leaders by their first names.

“I’ve had the great opportunity to meet with Mitch and Tim and others, and Roman and the other Tim and on and on. Good people. They’re good people, and they want to try to help, just like I want to try to help,” Justice said.

At the end of that speech, Justice wound up in a bit of unintentional comedy with Carmichael.

“I’m done,” he said, milling about in front of the House of Delegates chamber. “I don’t know what happens after this.”

Carmichael responded, loud enough for all to hear, “We’ll be in touch.”

Gov. Jim Justice makes a point during his State of the State speech with Senate President Mitch Carmichael and House Speaker Tim Armstead watching behind him.

A few minutes later, Armstead sent out a statement expressing disappointment with the governor’s approach to closing the state’s budget gap:

“While we want to work with the Governor to solve this budget crisis, I do not believe the approach he presented tonight is something this Legislature – or the voters who elected us – will support,” Armstead said.

The following day, speaking with a group of reporters in his office, Justice said he isn’t looking for fights with legislators. But he also said he’s not the one who deserves blame for the state’s budget woes.

“I hope to goodness that we don’t get into a situation to where we’re at odds with one another. You’ve got to remember this. I didn’t create this mess. I ran for governor because I wanted to try to help but I didn’t create the mess,” he said.

“And people along the way, if they wanted the mess to be fixed they could have fixed it. So for them to sit back and throw rocks at me, that’s pretty hard rocks to take.”

He continued, “I mean, you can stand up on your soap box and say Jim Justice said he wouldn’t raise taxes and Jim Justice is raising taxes now. It sounds great on your soap box. But what are you going to do? And why haven’t they already done it?”

Later in the conversation with reporters, Justice indicated he believes legislators who want heavy cuts to resolve the budget gap will back down.

“You think that’s the way to go, I adamantly disagree,” he said. “And at the end of the rainbow, they don’t have the guts in a billion years to say that’s the way to go.”

By this past week, Justice was trying to push his agenda forward while also putting time and effort into communicating with legislators.

He met three or four times in caucus with legislators, an act that observers said was a rarity in the prior administration of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

Justice is especially interested in pushing his infrastructure investment plan, which is fairly complicated.

His proposal means raising license plate renewal fees from $30 to $50, increasing Turnpike tolls from $2 to $3 (although the governor wants to let West Virginians avoid the tolls with an E-ZPass) and seeking legal permission to expand what roads can be tolled, and raising the base tax on gasoline by 10 cents a gallon.

The administration then wants to leverage those revenue streams into bonds amounting to up to $2.8 billion, although there are a lot of ifs.

The Legislature would have to approve the increased DMV fees and tolls, voters would have to approve the general obligation bond expected to be an outcome of the DMV fees, and the federal government would have to approve of changes to the tolling arrangement.

The Legislature would also have to increase the cap for Garvee bonds that are leveraged against anticipated federal highways funding.

Legislators also say they want to improve the state’s highways and bridges. But they are concerned about the amount of the DMV fee increases and worry about the gas tax hike’s effect on border counties. They say the bonds need to be approved by voters.

That’s why, on Transportation Day, Justice was asking contractors and highways workers who had gathered at the Capitol for their support.

“Think what this can do for West Virginia,” the governor said. “We blast off like a rocketship, which goes somewhere. We can do something.”

Carmichael, in his remarks right after Justice, made a similar analogy to describe West Virginia’s potential.

“We can turn this ship around in a matter of months,” he said. “We’re not an aircraft carrier. We’re a nimble, agile state.”


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