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Justice proposes cuts to agencies while coal taxes remain unpaid


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Since taking the oath of office, Gov. Jim Justice has taken steps to show that he is serious about tackling the state budget and its estimated $500 million deficit in the upcoming year.

West Virginia’s new leader has announced he was cutting five cars from the governor’s fleet. He later announced the elimination of another 45 vehicles from the Division of Corrections, which his office said would save $60,000 a year.

During his first State of the State address Wednesday, Justice announced that he would be seeking a litany of new taxes and laid out “responsible cuts” in his budget preview that could reduce or eliminate general revenue funding for Marshall University, West Virginia University, the Division of Labor, the Division of Culture and History, West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and several other programs.

But as Justice and his staff have drafted their first budget proposal, the billionaire businessman-turned-politician continues to owe the state more than $3 million in coal severance taxes that his businesses have failed to pay, as of Feb. 6.

If Justice’s privately owned businesses were to pay those obligations, state documents show the delinquent taxes could provide roughly $2.6 million to the government he now runs. That is the total that would go to the state government after deducting the portions of the severance tax that are provided to counties around the state.

Grant Herring, Justice’s press secretary, did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story.

The cuts that Justice is proposing put the governor’s ongoing tax debts into perspective at a time when state revenue estimates continue to come up short and Republican legislative leaders are voicing support for large-scale cuts to government services.

The roughly $2.6 million that could be added to the state’s revenue accounts if Justice’s companies paid their debts is equal to 44 percent of the proposed cuts to WVU, 92 percent of the funds that could be pulled from Marshall, or 96 percent of the cash that could be stripped from the Division of Labor.

The governor’s unpaid taxes could make up for the $155,000 that might be cut from the state’s College Readiness Program nearly 17 times over, or could provide seven-times more money than the savings Justice and his cabinet plan to get from the proposed “Vehicle Purchase Reduction.”

If the governor’s businesses paid their taxes, it would also account for 56 percent of funding that the governor is proposing to strip from West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Wednesday night, the state’s public broadcasting stations were airing the governor’s speech as he called for cuts to the very programing that was helping to disseminate his tax, education and business development plans statewide.

And the announced $4.6 million in general revenue cuts to Public Broadcasting soon elicited a response from supporters.

Susan Hogan, the chairwoman of Friends of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and Ted Armbrecht, chairman of the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation, released a statement asking the governor not to strip the organization of half of its funds. It also gets half its money from matching funds that are raised independently.

“We understand the state needs to save money, but such a drastic and immediate cut threatens the very existence of our state’s PBS and NPR stations,” they wrote, adding that governor never consulted public broadcasting officials about the proposed cuts.

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