Gov. Jim Justice’s town halls this week have been meant to persuade the public.
The governor achieved his goal in at least one respect. Senate Democrats today were vocal about one part of the speech they really, really liked.
Senate Democrats tweeted, “He is right.”
That was the moment Justice, a Republican, told citizens that key policies put forth by state officials in recent years haven’t paid off. Those included right-to-work and the elimination of prevailing wage, both top priorities of the Republican wave that swept into the Legislature just a few years ago. Justice also made reference to corporate tax cuts that began during the Manchin administration.
Justice this week assessed those as failures at promoting state growth. But he said his current proposal to phase out the personal income tax will be different.
“Really and truly, let’s just be brutally honest,” the governor said about a half-hour into Wednesday night’s town hall. “We passed the right-to-work law in West Virginia. And we ran to the windows looking to see all the people that were going to come — and they didn’t come. We got rid of prevailing wage. We changed our corporate taxes and we’ve done a lot of different things. And we’ve run to the windows and they haven’t come.
“We’ve absolutely built the field in a lot of different places thinking build the field and they’ll come, and they didn’t come.”
But Justice emphasized his plan to cut the personal income tax by at least half won’t be that way. Cutting the income tax, he said, will be a wise move.
“Watch and see what happens,” he said. “People will come from far and near.”
Justice made similar remarks during a town hall on Monday.
“We went out and passed the right to work law,” he said. “We got rid of prevailing wage. We built fields all over the place, in thinking that they will come. They didn’t come, did they?”
It’s not clear if Senate Democrats are ready to accept Justice’s promise about the income tax.
But they sure heard the part about right-to-work and prevailing wage.
Today’s Senate floor session ended with Democrats Mike Caputo, Mike Romano, John Unger and Richard Lindsay standing to declare that those policies have failed.
“The governor, a member of the majority party said yesterday, that right-to-work didn’t work — and repeal the prevailing wage didn’t work,” said Caputo, D-Marion, in a floor speech applauding the governor’s assessment.
Romano, D-Harrison, chimed in: “I think we failed on both of those points.”
“I remember during those debates that there were promises made, or vows, that if it didn’t work we’d repeal ’em. We’d take it back. We’d admit we were wrong and be the bigger people in the room and say ‘We were wrong. We’ll repeal ’em. Mr. President, I ask you to do that,” Romano said to current Senate President Craig Blair.
The Republican majorities in the Legislature passed Senate Bill 1, “The Workplace Freedom Act” — another name for right-to-work — in 2016. Senate Bill 2, which repealed the prevailing wage for public construction projects, passed the same year.
“We want prosperity, jobs, opportunity, growth — and what we [currently] are doing is not working,” Senator Mitch Carmichael, now Justice’s development director, said at the time.
Then-Senate President Bill Cole added, “All these things are part of a bigger package that will make West Virginia a place that businesses, the job creators, want to locate.”
Cole, a Republican, ran for governor in 2016 and was defeated by Justice, a businessman who ran as a Democrat. During the campaign, Justice called on the Legislature to put a repeal of prevailing wage and right to work issues up for a statewide vote
Justice switched parties six months after being sworn into office but did not promise to adhere to Republican principles, saying “Jim is still going to be Jim.”
The state AFL-CIO today embraced the governor’s comments and invited him to help with repeal of the policies.
“Governor Justice has a history of switching sides so we hope this candid moment is the beginning of a reversal of West Virginia’s anti-worker agenda,” said Josh Sword, president of the West Virginia union organization.
“Governor Justice admitted in the plainest possible terms what working people have known for generations: right to work is a lie that provides neither rights nor work.”
Republicans serving in the Senate today defended the right-to-work and prevailing wage policies.
Senator Robert Karnes, R-Randolph, who was part of the majority that passed the laws, was among those defending the decisions today.
He contended policies supported by Republicans have led to economic growth. Similar speeches were made by Senators Eric Tarr and Chandler Swope, both Republicans.
“There’s a number of things that we’ve done that are part of a mosaic of pieces that needed to be done,” Karnes said. “Clearly what we’re doing is working. That doesn’t mean everything is perfect. We’re still working through it. But to say it had no effect is simply wrong. Just wanted to point that out.”
Swope said it’s difficult to prove statistically whether right-to-work has paid off or not. “There are many reasons why companies make decisions to come to one state or another. Right-to-work is only one of them,” Swope said.
But Swope, who is from Mercer County, provided an anecdote about companies choosing to locate elsewhere before right-to-work was in effect in West Virginia. “Nearly every time, the answer immediately was ‘You mean I only have to drive four miles to get to a right to work state? See you later.’ That happened not once or twice but nearly dozens of times.'”
He concluded, “The fact that it’s difficult to prove statistically doesn’t change my mind about the importance of the right-to-work law.”
Roman Stauffer, the interim chairman of the Republican Party and Justice’s former campaign manager, said differences on some policies may occur even when Republicans are united overall.
“We may not always agree on the path, but we are united in our goal of moving forward and making West Virginia the best place to raise a family, start a business, and work,” Stauffer stated in response to a MetroNews question.
“Our Party’s platform supports eliminating the prevailing wage and right to work, reducing taxes, and eliminating business personal property tax on equipment, which was discussed last year, among many other proposals that Governor Justice and legislative leaders have championed.”