By LACIE PIERSON
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — While legislators stayed in session in Charleston, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice continued his statewide tour talking to West Virginians during a town hall event in Huntington on Wednesday.
Within the span of an hour Wednesday evening, Justice answered questions about everything from broadband to medical marijuana and how West Virginia can bolster its non-coal-producing counties at a town hall event in the WSAZ studio in Huntington.
It was the third such meeting Justice hosted in the past month, and panelists and people following the event on Facebook asked Justice questions that strayed from his normal talking points of his budget and highways plan.
When asked about expanding broadband access by panelist Ellen Allen, the director of Covenant House in Charleston, Justice said high-speed internet and broadband service companies had gone for the low-hanging, easy-to-access areas of the state.
He said he wanted to talk to service providers about installing “the last mile” lines into hollows and harder-to-access areas of the state.
“It’s almost like we as West Virginians are expected to know our place,” Justice said. “We’re not good enough to have what everybody else has, and I don’t buy that. I don’t buy that at all.”
Justice didn’t mention House Bill 3093, which would expand state policies with the goal of expanding high-speed internet and broadband access in the Mountain State. Among other provisions, the bill would establish a pilot program that would allow cooperative associations to provide high-speed internet and broadband services in underserved areas and reorganize and expand the powers and duties of the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council.
During a commercial break during the live broadcast, Justice was asked to address his stance on medical marijuana.
While he said he would support medical marijuana, he didn’t favor legalizing marijuana altogether for the sake of increasing revenue and left open some space to reconsider it in the future.
“I don’t know any of us who really, if we had a loved one that was really suffering and doctors felt like medical marijuana would help them, I would be all for it,” Justice said. “But here’s the real straight speak. We have a real drug problem in West Virginia today that is astronomical, and we’ve lost our way and lost hope. And for me to just say, ‘Oh, I’d be for legalizing marijuana just so I can make some money,’ really and truly we had best get our drug situation under control before we take that leap.”
The next-to-last question Justice was asked came from a viewer on Facebook who said all of the economic development in the state had focused on coal-producing counties. The viewer was interested in Justice’s plans for non-coal-producing counties.
“I mean, there’s so many opportunities right there,” Justice said. “Our problem is we have continued to chase our tail and not fix the problem. We’ve tried to stay elected, and politicians never addressed or fixed the problem.”
In a follow-up question from WSAZ anchor Amanda Barren about extending the 60-day regular legislative session to pass a balanced budget for fiscal year 2018, Justice said he hoped it didn’t come to that point.
He also reiterated a point that he felt legislators shouldn’t be paid for work on the budget outside of the regular session after a 17-day special session in 2016 cost taxpayers $595,000 while legislators balanced the fiscal year 2017 budget.
“Our state has a longer session than many states that are able to accomplish more and get their work done,” Justice said. “That’s another part of living within your means. I mean, really? We spent $600,000 last year just dinking around, and that’s real money to a lot of people.”
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