CHARLESTON, W. Va. — Governor Jim Justice says he can’t bear to put his name on a budget bill passed by the Legislature, but he’ll let it become law without his signature because the state is facing a fiscal deadline.
During a live-streamed address from the Governor’s Conference Room on Wednesday morning, Justice blasted House Republicans and Democrats in both houses who voted against his preferred revenue plans.
With the new fiscal year beginning July 1, the $4.2 billion budget will avert a shutdown — though Justice isn’t pleased with the measure.
“I’m just going to let it go into law. I can’t possibly put my name on it,” he said.
Justice had wanted a $4.35 billion budget that bolstered revenue by raising the sales tax to 6.5 percent and extending it to additional economic sectors.
His goals included using the new revenue to decrease the personal income tax and establish a tiered severance tax system for coal that gave a break for companies when prices are low.
Justice also wanted to raise teachers’ pay and build a Save Our State fund for infrastructure and economic development.
The Senate and House of Delegates couldn’t agree on a revenue measure, with the income tax reductions and higher sales taxes being the biggest areas of disagreement.
What passed Friday night was a $4.225 billion budget with no revenue increases, Medicaid spending even but filled in by transfers and expected surpluses, and a $16 million cut across higher education.
There were also spending reductions for tourism, fairs and festivals and state-promoted arts programs.
“I really hate this. I really do. I didn’t want us to hurt people more,” the governor said.
He said he would veto it if he could, but he was sensitive to the approaching fiscal deadline. He said the state needs a budget by July 1, and he realizes state employees have been coping with stress.
“We can’t afford to shut the government down and become the No. 1 thing on headline news tonight,” Justice said.
The governor spoke with three whiteboards that included what he believes were the successes of the budget session, including his roads package, a long list of what he considers failures and what he called “missed opportunities.”
— Brad McElhinny (@BradMcElhinny) June 21, 2017
Most of the missed opportunities were examples of moments when the governor’s preferred revenue plans were voted down. House Republicans and Democrats in both houses took most of his blame.
He again repeated a version of Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” in which he is the old man trying to reel in the Republicans. In this story, Democrats “ran and cut the line and pushed the fish out to sea.”
Democrats had objected to the personal income tax reductions in various incarnations of his plans, saying they were not a good idea while the state was up against major fiscal problems and that low- and medium-wage earners would have any benefit swamped by the other tax increases.
Justice didn’t see it that way. He saw the deal as the only way he could get through a budget without cuts to state programs.
“Imagine a Democrat, and I went and sat in their caucus and told them there was going to be carnage,” Justice said.
Justice later said voters should hold legislators who voted against his preferred plans accountable.
“I would tell you as voters, you have to pay attention. These people — too many people are here to be re-elected,” the governor said.
“If they’re voting the wrong way and causing pain, you’ve got to do something about it.”
Asked by Bob Aaron of WCHS-TV if that means he’ll campaign against Democrats, the governor responded, “I may.”
Justice elaborated: “The House leadership is surely, surely questionable on both sides.
“I’m really, really disappointed with the Democrats because they were family.”
Justice described himself as “the easiest guy in the world to work with.” But then he added, “I don’t know if Jesus himself could bring this bunch together.”
Reacting minutes later on MetroNews “Talkline,” House Minority Leader Tim Miley said he was frustrated by the governor’s remarks. Miley said Justice blamed Democrats when Republicans hold large majorities in the House and Senate.
“I could be personal, but I’m not going to be. I know it’s his first time as governor,” said Miley, D-Harrison.
“But for him to blame everyone but himself is a problem that’s going to follow him the next three years.”
Miley added, “Every time I hear the governor blame everybody but himself I feel like I’m in junior high school.”
Miley said the last revenue package the governor supported actually remained about $47 million shy of balancing the budget.
“If he wants to send up responsible legislation then he’ll get his legislation passed,” Miley said. “What he sent up, with regard to his plan, was not.
“I’m sorry, I’m not going to stand behind a budget that doesn’t even balance the year you’re working on.”
Another top Democrat, Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, said his party was with the governor right up until the end of the regular session, when the governor announced he was supporting income tax reductions favored by Senate Republicans.
“In the last two hours of the regular session, a complete change of programs and issues,” Prezioso said on “Talkline.”
Prezioso said he shares the governor’s criticism of the budget that wound up passing.
“It’s a terrible budget. We’re going to have to come back next year and do this again,” said Prezioso, D-Marion.
House Speaker Tim Armstead defended the budget as one that had well-considered cuts, particularly as the state has been facing declining revenue.
“There were a lot of things said this morning that I don’t agree with. This budget is not the travesty he’s talking about,” said Armstead, R-Kanawha, during “Talkline.”
“We never said anything other than there were significant serious cuts we were going to have to make.”
Armstead said he welcomes informal debates over such issues if Justice presses matters. The Speaker said he doesn’t think the governor really has the pulse of West Virginia’s population.
“If he wants to go to my district and have that debate, I’ll be there. I’m ready,” Armstead said.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael issued a statement saying he is glad the governor will allow the budget bill to become law.
“West Virginia’s dire financial situation will force us to make a choice in the future: We will have to continue making cuts to programs and services, or we must pass meaningful, comprehensive tax reform,” stated Carmichael, R-Jackson.
“It’s my hope that this responsible budget serves as the starting point for a conversation that will prove that tax reform can bring our state tremendous benefit. This budget provides security, certainty, and fiscal responsibility to the citizens of our great state.”