By BETH HENRY-VANCE
ELKINS, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice discussed his highways construction program and budget proposals with local residents Thursday, asking them for support as the state faces an estimated budget deficit of close to $500 million.
Justice spoke to a large crowd at the Randolph County Senior Center in Elkins, outlining two budget proposals he has issued in recent weeks that include a mix of funding cuts, fee changes, tax increases and job creation.
He noted the current regular session of the West Virginia Legislature is at its halfway mark, and Justice said he is concerned legislators won’t pass a state budget for the 2017/18 fiscal year by the session’s end on April 8.
Justice asked those in attendance at Thursday’s public event to take action and speak to state representatives.
“You can’t sit on the sidelines and expect me to just lead the parade and make it work,” he said. “Get involved. Call your legislators — put the heat on them. They need to hear from you.”
He said there is no way to avoid funding cuts, but he hopes the Legislature works with him and doesn’t “cripple” West Virginia.
“We’re on the verge of chaos like you can’t imagine,” he told Thursday’s audience.
“We are on the verge of a total collapse of this state. … I’m trying to get us on a pathway out.”
Justice said both of his budget plans include fractional increases to the consumer sales tax and business taxes.
He said his “Roads Plan” would create 48,000 jobs and double the state’s maintenance fund from $150 million to $300 million for repairing roads, potholes and bridges. It would be funded by increasing the toll on the West Virginia Turnpike from $2 to $4, increasing the gasoline excise tax by 4.5 cents a gallon and adding $20 to the annual fee for license plate vehicle stickers.
He acknowledged those increases will affect citizens’ personal finances.
“I know that it’s going to hurt,” Justice said, but if everyone works together, he said he hopes the state can avoid huge cuts that would “basically strip you to the bloomin’ bone” and eliminate services to seniors, veterans, students and all kinds of organizations.
“I will not tolerate that in any way,” he said in reference to the possibility of $450 million in state budget cuts.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, and House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, issued a joint statement Monday in response to Justice’s updated budget proposals, saying they are glad he is open to different options.
Carmichael and Armstead said in the release they agree that “we need to think big to solve our budget crisis,” and said legislators are working on “major tax reform proposals that will spur economic growth.”
“We are working night and day to solve this budget crisis, and are putting forward our own alternatives,” they said. “We are committed to doing everything we can to have a budget passed by this Legislature before we end our regular session on April 8.”
During Thursday’s visit at the Senior Center, Justice took questions from the audience before heading to Homestead Elementary School and viewing recent storm damage. Some of the topics he discussed included plans for increased economic development for small business as well as industry, such as furniture manufacturing; the need for better access to high-speed internet in all areas of the state; the possibility of charging some type of tax on pipelines that take natural resources outside of the state; and the need for keeping tourism funds in place in order to continue attracting visitors.
Robbie Morris, executive director of the Randolph County Development Authority, said he was glad Justice visited Elkins and shared some ideas for improving the state.
“It was great to hear Gov. Justice discuss Corridor H and propose a plan to complete the highway sooner rather than later,” Morris said. “Corridor H is a vital piece of economic development infrastructure that needs to be finished as soon as possible.”
“Randolph County is well-positioned to benefit from the industries Gov. Justice is promoting in his economic recovery plan, including tourism, hardwoods and manufacturing. All of these are crucial to the growth of our county, our region and our state,” he continued.
Elkins Mayor Van Broughton also said he was pleased to hear Justice’s ideas.
“I was impressed with his plans, and they do sound very reasonable,” Broughton said. “The key is he does want to work with both parties to make this a better state.”
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