By PHIL KABLER
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Declaring that proposed legislative budget cuts would create a health emergency in West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice announced Tuesday that he has ordered the lighting of the lantern in the state Capitol dome — a light historically lit during declared states of emergency.
“We are going to let the people know we have a health crisis beyond belief,” Justice said at a news briefing. “There are thousands and thousands and thousands that are going to be devastated.”
He was responding to an announcement last week by legislative leaders outlining a budget “framework” that would cap general revenue spending at $4.05 billion, about $390 million less than the current budget.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, subsequently said the yet-to-be-released legislative budget bill will have to cut $50 million each from what he called the “big three” of the state budget: K-12 public education, higher education and the Department of Health and Human Resources.
On Tuesday, Justice called the legislative proposal “terribly cowardly” and said the projected cuts of $50 million each are “fantasy.”
“The numbers are more like $100 [million], $100, $100, than $50, $50, $50,” he said.
Tuesday’s briefing focused on the potential health care spending cuts, and Justice provided a series of options submitted by DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch to comply with the legislative cuts, ranging from reducing the number of Aged and Disabled Waivers to provide in-home care to senior citizens to reducing Medicaid payments to nursing homes — a cut Crouch said would put many facilities out of business.
“A $50 million cut to our budget is traumatic,” Crouch said. “It’s going to affect people, it’s going to affect services and it’s, subsequently, going to affect the economy.”
Justice said of the proposed cuts, “The level of distress and pain that will have [on] our people is unbelievable.”
Justice held the briefing in the executive conference room in the Governor’s Office suite, a room he said will be made available around the clock, beginning this morning, as a “war room,” where his staff will be on call to work with legislators to negotiate what he called a “responsible budget” bill.
“I’m proposing we close the doors, and lock the doors, until we come up with the budget resolved,” Justice said, adding that he’s not optimistic that legislative leaders will take him up on the offer.
“I’m betting they won’t come,” he said. “I’m betting all they want to do is more of the same rhetoric. I’m betting they won’t tell you what real things they want to cut, because they don’t have the guts to do it.”
Justice said that, last Friday, he left his home in Lewisburg at 5 a.m. to host a breakfast with legislative leaders, and said going into the meeting that chief of staff Nick Casey felt certain leadership would come forward with ideas, and they would make progress on the budget talks.
Instead, Justice said, “We got nothing done. I told them, ‘Listen here, I don’t need to be up at five in the morning and come down here for nothing.’ ”
Justice said he also is aware that the ultimate outcome of a budget impasse could be a shut-down of state government on July 1, but he said he’s willing to take that risk if the alternative is to approve what he said would be “terrible” cuts in state programs and services.
“Let’s hope and pray that good judgment comes over all of us and we don’t need to do such a thing as that,” he said, “but if that be that, so be it.
“Are you really willing to turn your backs on these people, and just cut them off, just throw them out in the cold and let them die? I’m not,” Justice said. “If it means we’ve got to shut down, we’ve just got to shut down.”
Last year, the Legislature broke a 92-day budget impasse on June 14, 16 days ahead of a government shutdown. That impasse was driven by a $270 million shortfall in the current state budget, roughly half the size of the nearly $500 million deficit in the 2017-18 budget.
Justice’s briefing Tuesday was the latest in a series of comments and appearances to use the bully pulpit of the Governor’s Office to rally public support for his budget plan, which calls for $346.6 million in tax increases to close the shortfall without massive spending cuts to government programs.
“The people are with me,” he said of his budget plan. “The people get it.”
Later Tuesday, Carmichael called Justice’s decision to light the state-of-emergency lantern an “out-of-touch move” and said the governor’s comments are further drawing a line in the sand.
“There is no question about it: This governor has declared war on the taxpayers of the state of West Virginia by demanding that they absorb the costs of his desire to grow government,” Carmichael said in a statement. “Gov. Justice has repeatedly asked both the public and the Legislature to ‘trust him,’ and to ‘judge him by his deeds.’ The deeds this governor today show a person who is dangerously unprepared to lead this state, and someone who has a deep disrespect for constitutional government and the hardworking, taxpaying citizens who elected him. This Legislature will not stand by and allow the taxpayers to be used as collateral, or to be disrespected any longer.”
House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, called the lighting of the lantern “a stunt,” and said it is disrespectful to victims of natural disasters, such as last June’s floods, which have resulted in governors declaring states of emergency.
“The people of West Virginia expect better from their governor,” Armstead said. “Bullying isn’t leadership. Building consensus around the right plan for our state is leadership.
“If the governor wants to work with us to solve this problem in a responsible and productive manner, we remain willing to work with him,” Armstead added, “but the clock is ticking, and we don’t have time to play games.”
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