By RUSTY MARKS
The State Journal
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice got laughs before he even began his State of the State address on Wednesday, Feb. 8, 2017.
“Unless you all want to be here all night, you need to stop all this clapping and stuff,” Justice said shortly after entering the chambers of the House of Delegates to present a roughly hour-long speech.
The humor set the tone for the rest of the evening as Justice presented a plain-spoken, extemporaneous description of his vision for the state, delivered without the aid of teleprompters or use of more than just basic notes.
Occasionally funny and frequently self-deprecating, Justice said he was a simple guy who sincerely wanted to help West Virginia dig itself out of the worst financial hole since the Great Depression.
Armed with a dry-erase marker and a white board to help illustrate his budget ideas, Justice also took frequent short breaks to rest.
“I’m not nervous, I just sweat a lot,” he said at one point, mopping his brow.
He then went on to outline his budget plan.
Justice said the state can’t solve its problems simply by cutting more line items out of the budget.
“Just think about this just for a second,” he said. “Are you willing — are you willing to eliminate all of our state parks? Are you willing to eliminate all of your colleges and universities other than Marshalland WVU? Shut them down? Are you really willing to close our tracks, to not have dogs, and to not have horses? Are you really truly willing to gut your seniors? Are you willing to turn our backs on our vets?”
He said even making such draconian cuts would only get state officials halfway toward solving the budget crisis.
Justice wants to make one last withdrawal from the state rainy day fund to make up for a $123 million budget shortfall in the fiscal year ending June 30. To close an estimated $500 million budget hole in the 2017-2018 budget, he proposed adding a temporary 1/2 cent increase to the state sales tax, eliminating sales tax exemptions on advertising and professional services and charging business owners a business tax of two-tenths of a percent on gross revenues.
At the same time, he proposed increasing tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike from $2 to $3, increasing the tax on a gallon of gasoline by 10 cents and increasing Division of Motor Vehicleslicensing fees from $30 to $50 to create a pool of money to address the Mountain State’s crumbling road system.
“This is the 800-pound gorilla in the room,” he said. “Not me.”
Justice wants to use the money from the pool to float what he says are more than $2 billion in construction bonds. The plan would require legislative approval to use Turnpike tolls on roads other than the Turnpike, and a statewide vote to approve some of the bonds.
He also proposed an $8 fee for state residents that would allow them an EZ Pass card to travel the Turnpike for free.
Republicans in both the state Senate and House are not very happy with the budget plan, which includes new taxes they have vowed to stay away from.
Justice hosted a news conference Feb. 9 to further defend his budget plan.
He said he had no idea how bad the state’s financial situation was until taking office in January.
“We’re dying,” he said. “We may already be dead. People have got to understand how bad ‘bad’ is here.
“I hope to goodness we don’t get into a situation where we’re at odds with each other,” he said of Republican opposition to the budget plan.
“People want to say, ‘Justice wants to raise your taxes.’ That’s hogwash. Justice wants to fix the problem.”
Justice said he didn’t want to raise taxes, but saw no other responsible way to both balance the budget and set West Virginia back on a path toward prosperity. He said the tax increases will be temporary, and said he wants to abolish the state’s income text within the next few years.
Justice said lawmakers have cut the budget by about $600 million over the past few years. “We’ve gone deeper and deeper and deeper,” he said. “We’re at the point of no return.”
Also during his State of the State address, Justice said he wanted to decentralize education to turn more control over to county school boards, give classroom teachers a 2 percent pay raise and do away with the A through F school assessment system. He illustrated the last point with a picture of a bell curve.
“I don’t get it,” Justice said. “That’s got to go.”
Justice said he also wants to do away with the current Smarter Balance standardized test and adopt a test like the ACT. He said Feb. 9 the state’s education system isn’t working. “We’re dead blooming last,” he said.
The governor also said during his speech he wants to promote tourism and agriculture in West Virginia, and work with U.S. Sens. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., to secure federal subsidies to bring hardwood manufacturing to the state.
Justice said if voters and lawmakers would trust him, he could help solve West Virginia’s problems.
“I’ve given you a pathway,” he said toward the end of his address. “I hope you’ll consider it.”
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