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Justice talks teamwork with GOP legislative leaders Carmichael, Armstead


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Having returned to the fold Friday, Gov. Jim Justice met briefly with Republican leaders of the Senate and House of Delegates at the Capitol Monday to discuss ways to work as a team, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said.

Gov. Jim Justice
(WV Legislature photo)

“It was more of just a rah-rah session,” Carmichael said of Justice’s meeting with himself and House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, in the Governor’s Office.

“I’d have to say it wasn’t a specifics-oriented meeting as much as it was, ‘Let’s all get together. Let’s recognize we’re all on the same team now,’ ” Carmichael said.

It was their first meeting since Justice, who changed his party affiliation to Democrat in 2015, announced that he was flipping back to Republican at a rally Thursday for President Donald Trump in Huntington. Justice officially changed his registration Friday afternoon.

Carmichael said Justice reiterated his reasons for changing parties, including citing his relationship with the Trump family and, as Justice said at a news conference Friday, his bitterness at House Democrats for not backing a proposal to raise the state sales tax while lowering income tax rates.

Armstead did not respond to a request for comment, and House spokesman Jared Hunt said Armstead’s comments from Friday about Justice’s change of party still stand.

In a statement Friday, Armstead said he is hopeful the governor will embrace the “bold, conservative principles of the Republican Party.”

Meanwhile, West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee said Monday that he met with Justice on Friday, and said the governor assured him that he remains committed to the principles that led to the union’s endorsement in the 2016 election.

“We believe he’s fully committed to education, and making it the centerpiece of economic development in the state,” Lee said, saying Justice reaffirmed his commitment to improving funding for education.

“He’s committed to getting teachers’ salaries to where they need to be,” Lee said.

In his State of the State address, Justice proposed a 2 percent pay raise for classroom teachers, at an annual cost of $21 million, but the proposal did not survive the legislative budget impasse.

That echoed comments Justice made at his news conference Friday, when he said his party switch would not bring a change in his positions on key policy issues.

“Jim isn’t changing; Jim is still going to be Jim,” Justice said of himself on Friday. “Jim is still going to be the person that stands up with all in him for the common, everyday family. That’s all there is to it. Jim’s going to be rock solid behind the teachers and trying to help education. Jim is going to be exactly the same Jim that always was there.”

As to whether Justice would be a Republican in name only, Carmichael said, “I don’t think he’s too political in his approach at all.”

Carmichael said Justice “evolved” during the 2017 legislative session, going from an initial proposal to expand government and raise $450 million in new tax revenue, to embracing the Senate Republican plan to cut spending and lower income taxes.

“He evolved from his first days from his State of the State address, where he came in with all these tax increases,” Carmichael said. “He realized they weren’t going to go through a Republican-led Legislature. That’s how we got around to the whole discussion of tax reform.”

Justice spokesman Butch Antolini provided a two-sentence comment from the governor regarding Monday’s meeting: “The meeting was really productive. Everyone was very cordial and I think all parties are excited to work together to move West Virginia forward.”

Carmichael said he and Armstead also asked Justice if he is seriously considering calling the Legislature back into special session, but said they didn’t arrive at a conclusive answer.

At numerous appearances this summer, Justice has said he would like to call a special session to take up two bills that didn’t pass earlier this year, one to fully exempt military pensions from state income taxes and one to impose a 5 percent surcharge on highways construction contracts, to provide $150 million for drug treatment centers.

Carmichael said he believes there is considerable support for the pension exemption, but said there are a number of issues with the highways construction surcharge, including whether state Road Fund revenue legally can be used for purposes other than road building and maintenance.

“It creates a lot of concerns, as to whether it is constitutional to take that money from the Road Fund,” he said.

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