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Justice going without script in first state of WV address

By PHIL KABLER

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. —  Perhaps not surprisingly, Gov. Jim Justice’s first State of the State address this evening will break a number of traditions.

Most notably, spokesman Butch Antolini confirmed Tuesday, is that Justice will not use a prepared text or read the speech from teleprompters.

“He’s unconventional,” Antolini said. “He’s going to do his own thing.”

Justice will also give the speech from a podium in the middle of press row in the West Virginia House chamber, at the foot of the dais where governors traditionally give the State of the State address.

That, Antolini confirmed, is so that Justice will be able to use a whiteboard to illustrate his points, something he has done in recent public appearances around the state.

It also comes as no surprise that the primary topic of Justice’s address will be the $500 million deficit in the West Virginia’s 2017-18 budget. Antolini said the budget shortfall “absolutely” will be Justice’s top issue tonight.

 

Gov. Jim Justice

“He will have interesting and exciting things to say tomorrow night,” Antolini said Tuesday.

Legislative leaders expressed concern Tuesday, though, that what Justice will propose to remedy the budget crisis remains a mystery.

“I have no clue,” Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said, adding that he has a sense that Justice will walk back previous talk of massive spending cuts.

House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, likewise expressed concern that legislators have no real inkling going into the 60-day regular session as to Justice’s plans to close the funding gap and balance the $4.1 billion general revenue budget.

During the campaign, Justice alternately said the government cannot absorb additional spending cuts beyond the nearly $600 million in cuts imposed by then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, saying, “You can’t cut your way out of this mess,” but he also said taxpayers cannot bear the burden of higher taxes.

Since his election, Justice and top aides have declared the budget deficit worse than imagined, with chief of staff Nick Casey calling the condition of state finances the worst since the Great Depression of the early 20th century, and warning that massive spending cuts are needed.

While the new administration has provided little in the way of concrete information — Cabinet secretaries and department heads have been directed not to give news interviews — indications are that Justice has called on his leadership team to cut personnel and spending in their agencies.

He also seemed to hint at tax increases in his inaugural address last month, saying, “We have to find a way to raise revenue.”

Subsequently, aides rolled back those comments, suggesting that Justice was referring to the need to grow the economy to produce more revenue.

However, Justice also chastised Carmichael for a news release last month complimenting the governor for his “pledge to confront the fiscal issues of West Virginia without raising taxes.”

At least one tradition will hold: The speech is scheduled to begin at 7 p.m., and will be broadcast and streamed live by multiple news outlets, including the Gazette-Mail at wvgazettemail.com.

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