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‘Beyond Dire’: With marker in hand, West Virginia’s new governor delivers unconventional State of the State

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In what may have been the most unconventional State of the State address in West Virginia history, Gov. Jim Justice warned that the state’s situation is “beyond dire” and that the Legislature must work with him to take bold steps — including $450 million in tax increases in the short-term — to assure the state’s survival.

“We’re dying. We are dying. It’s so blooming bad, you can’t possibly imagine,” Justice warned, while adding, “There’s a way out. Prosperity is in front of us.”

Working without teleprompters or prepared text, but with a whiteboard on the floor of House chambers, the billionaire businessman’s 52-minute speech lived up to his reputation for telling folksy anecdotes, while also driving home the point the state needs to make dramatic systemic changes to overcome its ongoing financial crisis.

“I’ve always thought if you get caught by Frankenstein, you deserve to die,” Justice told the joint session of the House and Senate, mimicking the monster’s loping walk. “If we don’t do anything and all we do is kick the can down the road, and all we do is fight, then we deserve to die.”

While declaring that he’s adamantly against tax increases, Justice told the Republican-controlled Legislature that the only way to address a $500 million deficit in the 2017-18 state budget and as much as a $700 million shortfall the year after is to temporarily raise taxes — primarily by increasing the consumer sales tax to 6.5 percent and imposing an 0.2 percent gross receipts tax on businesses to raise more than $300 million of $450 million of proposed revenue increases.

Justice said he found it impossible for the state to cut its way out of the budget deficit, instead proposing $26.6 million in spending cuts in the 2017-18 budget.

“Are you willing to eliminate all of our state parks? Are you willing to close all our colleges and universities except for Marshall and WVU?”

he asked legislators, heading a list of programs that would have to be eliminated to balance the state budget entirely through cuts.

However, Justice said he will appoint a “waste czar” to find wasteful spending or hidden funds in every state agency, and noting that his administration already is cutting waste by eliminating 207 vehicles from the state fleet.

His key proposal Wednesday was a call to sell bonds to raise somewhere between $1.4 billion and $2.8 billion for highways and transportation projects statewide, calling it the “800-pound gorilla in the room” that will create some 48,000 jobs, will make state tourism “explode,” and will put displaced miners back to work.

Justice noted the bond issue also comes with some pain, including higher DMV fees and raising and continuing tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike, while suggesting rebuilding the state’s transportation system could require tolling of other state highways.

“As we go forward, there’s going to have to be something in your neighborhood that’s tolled,” he said.

Justice also promised “gigantic” education reform, saying he will eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy, as well as the A-to-F grading system for state schools performance, while reducing what he called the over-testing of state students.

“I’m going to propose we throw Smarter Balance in the trash can, and we go with ACT testing,” Justice said.

He also said his budget plan includes 2 percent pay raises for classroom teachers, apologizing that he couldn’t do more than that this session.

He also discussed plans to create a tiered severance tax for coal and natural gas, that would increase as prices are high, and drop when prices fall, as well as plans to help bring furniture manufacturing back to the state.

 To that end, Justice said his friendship with President Donald Trump and his family could prove valuable.

“We are the perfect candidate for what President Trump wants to do in bringing manufacturing back to the states,” Justice said.

Justice said he also wants to see the Department of Environmental Protection and other state regulatory agencies assist rather than hinder regulated businesses.

“We are not going to break the law. We’re not going to do anything to damage the environment…but we are not going to just say no,” he said.

Ultimately, Justice told legislators that if they work with him, West Virginia can make a comeback comparable to the come-from-behind victory that quarterback Tom Brady and the New England Patriots made in Sunday’s Super Bowl.

Turning to Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, and House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, above him on the speaker’s podium, Justice declared, “I will work with you with every ounce of being that I have.”

Phil Kabler covers the statehouse for the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

Originally published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, February 8, 2017