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Justice basks in road bond victory, announces special session


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice had a good excuse for being 20 minutes late to his Monday morning news conference on passage of the $1.6 billion road bond amendment: His commute from Lewisburg was delayed by a Division of Highways worker putting out orange cones preparing for road work.

Gov. Jim Justice

“He’s not dropping the cones out for work to begin next summer. He’s dropping the cones out for work to begin now,” a still-ebullient Justice said about 36 hours after voters overwhelmingly approved the Roads to Prosperity 2017 amendment.

“The people have given us the opportunity now to drop a lot of cones,” the governor said.

In September, the state sold about $260 million in federally financed GARVEE bonds, the first of a three-pronged effort to issue a total of about $2.6 billion in bonds for road building.

Transportation Secretary Tom Smith said the DOH has numerous resurfacing and secondary road projects getting underway this fall, as part of the first phase of enhanced funding for road construction and maintenance.

For Justice, after crisscrossing the state to host dozens of town hall meetings promoting Saturday’s bond vote, Monday was an opportunity to take a second victory lap for the bond’s 73 percent to 27 percent margin of victory, and to announce that he will call a special session of the Legislature, beginning Monday, in part to address Division of Highways manpower issues.

In typical hyperbole, Justice called passage of the bond “absolutely the most historic time in this state,” although adjusted to today’s dollars, the 1973 road bond referendum — the last road bond of comparable size approved by voters — had a value of $2.77 billion.

“Saturday night, West Virginia, for maybe the first time in its existence, tasted winning, and it tastes good,” Justice said Monday. “This is an opportunity for jobs. This is an opportunity for revenue. This is an opportunity to bring people to our state. That’s what winning tastes like.”

Justice credited a coalition of business and labor for working together to promote the referendum, noting, “There’s a whole lot of Democrats there, there’s a whole lot of Republicans there, and probably a few independents, who worked together for the common good of one thing, and that’s West Virginia.”

With just 11 percent turnout, voters in 54 of the 55 counties approved the bond — Ritchie County was the exception — with an approval margin of 80 percent or higher in 10 counties.

“I would say to the naysayers, if I lost 54-1, I’d be listening to what the people had to say,” Justice said, taking a shot at those who openly opposed the bond referendum, including the Wood County Republican Executive Committee and Delegates Michael Folk and Marshall Wilson, both R-Berkeley.

“For the naysayers, you know you’ll probably never change some that are just on a mission to spew out stuff that’s bad,” Justice said. “In all honesty, for those, we’d hope the people of West Virginia will wise up and look at electing more reasonable people.”

Justice said Monday the special session call has not been finalized, but he said one issue that needs to be addressed involves streamlining state hiring policies, to fill some 500 vacant positions at the DOH.

“To hire somebody for the state today, you’ve got to go through the most bureaucratic process that bogs everything down,” Justice said.

Smith said the vacancies cover the gamut of Highways’ positions.

“We’ve been chronically understaffed,” he said.

Justice said he also will revisit his proposal to fully exempt military pensions from state income taxes, saying, “We want to bring veterans to this state.”

The exemption would cost the state about $3 million a year in lost tax revenue, according to the Department of Revenue, and would benefit retired officers and 20-year-plus career military veterans, since current law exempts the first $22,000 in military pensions from state income taxes.

The special session will coincide with scheduled legislative interim meetings for October.

Justice and Smith also announced the appointment of a task force headed by Smith, Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher and Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy to monitor contractors who receive highway construction contracts through the various bond issues.

Union workers last month protested against a Florida-based contractor that they contend has failed to remit payroll withholding taxes for a variety of state-funded projects over the years.

While Justice and Smith would not comment on the specific case, the governor said it is an example of how ongoing personnel cutbacks are preventing state agencies from adequately performing duties, including auditing out-of-state contractors.

“We have eliminated auditors because we didn’t have the money to pay them. We have cut our staffs down,” Justice said. “You may very well have a contractor that can see they can get by. Well, they’re not going to be able to get by, if I have anything to do with it.”

Reach Phil Kabler at [email protected], 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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