By March 22, 2017 Read More →

Justice summons legislators to discuss budget impasse

By LACIE PIERSON

The Herald-Dispatch

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice on Tuesday sounded the alarm on what he said was a “health crisis beyond belief.”

During a news conference in the governor’s executive meeting room, Justice said two of his executive cabinet members will be in that room from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day to allow legislators to come and go freely with the goal of working out a budget compromise over a $500 million hole in fiscal year 2018.

The conference was Justice’s latest response to a budget plan revealed by Republican legislative majority leaders on March 13, which includes $150 million in cuts, distributed with cuts of $50 million apiece among the state’s K-12 public school system, higher education and the Department of Health and Human Resources.

“First of all, those are fantasy numbers,” Justice said. “They’re using a bunch of fantasy numbers to kick the can down the road and the numbers are more like 100, 100, 100 rather than 50, 50, 50.”

Justice’s budget proposal includes raising taxes on sugary soft drinks and cigarettes, revising pension contributions and reducing previously proposed fractional sales and corporate tax hikes.

In response to proposed cuts to DHHR, Justice called for the light at the top of the Capitol dome mast to be lit, signaling a potential health emergency, Justice said.

The light is symbolic in nature and typically is lit during a state of emergency. It most recently was lit last summer in the wake of fatal flooding throughout southern West Virginia. It also was lit during the 2014 Elk River chemical leak.

“We have a health emergency that’s right at our fingertips, and here are thousands and thousands and thousands that are going to be devastated,” Justice said. “We’re going to turn on the dome light from the standing of declaring an absolute health emergency in this state.”

Justice said that most of the Republican leadership’s responses to his budget proposals have been means of killing time.

Justice also called on legislators to meet with Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy and state Budget Director Mike McKown, both of whom have been instructed to stay posted in the governor’s executive meeting room during business hours each day to meet with legislators.

We put them in here,” Justice said. “We lock the doors, and we say, ‘Let’s get it done.’ I’m betting you they won’t come. I’m betting all they want to do is more of the same rhetoric. I’m betting they won’t tell you the real things they want to cut because they don’t have the guts to do it.”

It didn’t take long for legislative leadership to respond to Justice’s conference Tuesday.

House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said Justice’s conference showed an “immature and cavalier attitude,” and demanded Justice apologize for his use of the lantern on the dome.

“Jim Justice has belittled and made a joke of a symbol that should not be politicized,” Armstead said in the release. “The governor owes those affected by tragedies an apology. He owes the people of West Virginia an apology.”

Armstead also said legislators were working day and night to pass a budget bill in record time.

“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. But the clock is ticking, and we don’t have time to play games,” he said.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, responded by saying Justice’s conference was a means to “complain about the Legislature, make threats and scare the public into believing the sun will not rise if the Legislature will not grant him his massive $450 million tax increase.”

“Today, while the Legislature continued its work, the governor called us cowards, described his meetings with legislative leadership as producing ‘nothing,’ threatened to shut down the government outright if he does not get his way and — perhaps in the most out-of-touch move to date —declared his intent to turn on the state of emergency lantern in the top of the Capitol dome,” Carmichael said. “In further drawing his line in the sand, he said he would be downstairs every morning in his ‘war room,’ and the Legislature could come to him to work.”

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