By ANDREA LANNOM
BECKLEY, W.Va. — Saying it’s not about taxes or “living within our means,” Gov. Jim Justice said the budget is about presenting a vision for the future and a plan – which he said he has and the Legislature does not.
Justice met with the Register-Herald and the Charleston Gazette-Mail separately on Monday, discussing his budget proposal and his veto of the budget bill.
The Legislature’s budget, he said, would have been catastrophic to the state.
“What’s the plan? What do we do?” Justice asked. “We are supposed to be there to plot a course. … Anyone can balance a budget. What we are supposed to do is come up with a prudent way of balancing the budget but come up with a plan that drives us toward prosperity, that gives us hope, that keeps our families here.”
Justice said he is prepared to call legislators back to Charleston for a special session sometime in May.
Justice vetoed the budget bill April 13 in a press conference with university heads and business leaders gathered around a table with him.
During that press conference, he called the budget a “bunch of bull-you-know-what” and unveiled under a serving plate, cow manure atop the budget bill.
Some lawmakers criticized the theatrics and the props, saying it could make it harder to work as a team in the future.
“Look, I’m just Jim,” Justice said. “I don’t profess to hit 100 out of 100 or 1,000 out of 1,000. But to the average, everyday guy on the street, probably liked it and probably said, ‘I’m glad he called it what it is because this is nothing more than bull-you-know-what.’ It is,” he said.
Justice said the budget passed by the Legislature would have cut 48,000 jobs that he said would have been created from his highway plan along with his proposal for state residents to pay a one-time annual fee of $8 to drive on the turnpike.
He said his highway plan would have poured millions back into fixing existing roads, potholes and all existing roads, potentially creating up to 10,000 more jobs.
He said cuts to higher education under the budget bill could have meant closing universities – specifically mentioning Concord University in Athens and Fairmont State University. He also had concerns of increased tuitions at universities and community and technical colleges.
“If I would have just signed the budget, we would have had a catastrophe with higher education,” Justice said. “Universities would have raised their tuition like crazy, services would have been lost and schools would have ended up having to close.”
Also among his concerns was taking $90 million out of the Rainy Day Fund, which would have led to a downgrade in the state’s bond rating.
“We have already been downgraded and we would have been downgraded even more,” he said.
The Legislature’s budget did not include two other Justice requests: a 2 percent teacher pay raise and funding for the Save Our State fund to promote the state.
Late on the last night of the regular session, Justice announced a framework had been reached with Senate President Mitch Carmichael. That plan, which would fail before the end of the session, included an increase in consumer sales tax, a .0045 Commercial Activities Tax, a 4.5 cent gas tax, a 2 percent teacher pay raise, and money allocated to the Save Our State fund to market the state. It also included his proposed roads project money.
Justice pointed to the state’s Chamber of Commerce which has supported the Commercial Activities Tax, which he said would be sunset under his plan.
The framework represented about $50 million in cuts but Justice previously said it didn’t cut higher education, the Department of Health and Human Resources or K-12.
He said the goal of his plan is for “everyone to pull the rope together.”
“The whole concept has been there are four legs of the stool,” he said. “You have your people, wealthy people, business and government. I’ve tried to find as much waste as I can find that is not going to hurt us badly and put that at play. I came up with the wealthy West Virginians, businesses and people because I want everyone to feel like everyone is in on the game.”
He said he had previously met with Armstead two to three different times before meeting with Carmichael the final night of the regular session.
“Bless his heart,” Justice said of Armstead. “Where he stands is very difficult for me to understand because what he wants to do is supposedly lower the consumer sales tax and broaden the base that business is just going to melt down over.”
Justice said he also had support from Republicans in the House, saying several members came to his office saying they would support his plan.
Justice believes he and Carmichael could work out a budget in “five minutes.”
“Five minutes and it would be completely done,” Justice said. “Mitch gets it. He understands. He realizes where we all want to go. I’ve got a lot of respect for Mitch Carmichael. Not that I don’t have respect for Tim Armstead, but we’re on different planets.”
When asked if he felt whether a government shutdown was a possibility, he said he hoped it wouldn’t come to that.
“I hope to goodness we don’t get to something like that,” he said. “Surely to goodness, it’s not going to get to that.”
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