By ANDREA LANNOM
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Saying the state has a “health emergency at its fingertips,” Gov. Jim Justice called for switching on the State of Emergency light on top of the Capitol dome because of proposed reductions under legislative leadership’s budget framework.
Justice called a press conference Tuesday, sitting alongside West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch and Department of Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy.
Justice called the budget framework, proposed by Republican legislative leadership last week, a “cowardly move” and mentioned concerns of cutting education and Medicaid.
Saying the state is facing “an absolute health emergency,” he called to switch on the State of Emergency light, that will run for 24 hours starting Tuesday evening.
“If we do the wrong thing in the state, it’s going to hurt so many people it’s unbelievable.”
He also said he’s going to make his office available beginning 9 a.m. Wednesday to legislators to come to an agreement with the budget.
“This office needs to be headquarters and a war room,” Justice said. “We need to lock the doors and not come out until we get a compromised budget for people and done in the correct way.”
In a press conference last week, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, and House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, announced their framework for the budget. They said their goal is for the state to “live within its means” by staying within its $4.05 billion revenue estimate, compared to Justice’s proposal of $4.5 billion. Some of the proposals include continuing the 2 percent midyear cuts, increasing the beer barrel tax and increasing the wholesale liquor tax.
Carmichael and Armstead said the plan also included taking a hard look at the Department of Health and Human Resources and K-12 and higher education in particular. In a previous interview, Carmichael said the framework requires $150 million across those three agencies or $50 million from each. Justice said in his view, it wouldn’t be $50 million from each, it would be more like $100 million.
“Those are fantasy numbers,” Justice said. “Absolute fantasy numbers. … If we cut $50 million from Medicaid today … the level of distress and pain that would be to our people is unbelievable. It’s basically a cut and run philosophy. We want you to cut but we’re going to run and we’re not going to tell you what to cut.”
Justice said he and Crouch came up with possibilities of what the cuts could be, saying “they’re terrible in every way.”
He said there are two alternatives, tax increases or the “live within our means” budget.
“How it needs to be told is it’s recovery or sure death,” he said.
“You’ve got a group of Republicans that are good people. They understand. Behind private doors, they say they’re with me. You’ve got a bunch of courageous Democrats going out and say they’re willing to put West Virginia first and Democrats second. Then, there is a faction of Republicans that are totally on a mission from God to cut. But you see, with every cut, there’s a name and a family.”
Crouch said he’s spent the last two weeks looking at what reductions could mean, saying it would be “traumatic. He said a $50 million reduction equates to about $175 million to $180 million in total cuts, accounting for federal matching dollars.
“It’s going to affect people,” he said. “Services will have to be cut.”
Crouch said the agency is limited in how it makes cuts because Medicaid requires certain mandatory services. He said the agency could reduce rates on mandatory services, mentioning nursing homes and behavioral health in particular.
“It is serious. It is very serious,” he said.
When asked about whether he was afraid of a government shutdown happening before an agreement is reached on a budget, Justice responded that “we’re either going to shut down or die down.”
“It makes no difference to me,” he said. “If we shut our government down, we’re going to die anyway. Are we really willing to turn our backs on people and just cut them out? Are we going to throw them out in the cold and let them die? I’m not. If it means we’ve got to shut down, then we’ve got to shut down.”
When asked about the name-calling that has pervaded the session, Justice said it didn’t bother him what people say as long as they get a budget.
Some legislators have expressed ire over the terms “knuckleheads” or “blockheads” while others expressed frustration that there has been name-calling in the first place. He said he didn’t know if it was constructive or destructive but said it doesn’t matter.
“It doesn’t matter to me them calling me a walrus … Really and truly here’s what I think. There are families sitting at home, destitute for years. These people are really hurting. They’re hurting big time. And we’re going to sit here and worry about somebody that got called a knucklehead and crawl in a hole and say, ‘I don’t like that. That’s so bad.’ Or say, ‘You called me a walrus. I don’t like that. That’s so bad.’ They can call me a walrus or a grizzly bear or whatever they call me. What I’m trying to do is help that family at home.”
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