By LACIE PIERSON
BARBOURSVILLE, W.Va. — Much like the 134 members of the Legislature are doing in Charleston, more than 100 veterans and community leaders stood before Gov. Jim Justice on Monday morning asking for action to balance West Virginia’s budget and breathe new life into the state.
In the recreation hall of the Barboursville Veterans Home, Justice took questions from veterans in attendance as a part of his “Save Our State” tour, during which he has promoted his proposals to balance the state’s budget and stimulate the state’s economy through a highway infrastructure funding and improvement plan.
Tuesday was expected to be Justice’s last stop on the tour for some time, and he fielded questions and comments regarding concerns about veterans’ retirement funds and the state’s education system.
To balance the budget for fiscal year 2018, which begins July 1, 2017, Justice proposes to close estimated $500 million state deficit by raising taxes on sugary soft drinks and cigarettes, revising pension contributions and reducing previously proposed fractional sales and corporate tax hikes.
In the second part of the plan, Justice has called for major highway reconstruction to boost the state economy, funded by bonding seeded with revised taxes and fees. Justice and members of his cabinet have said it could create up to 48,000 jobs.
At the veterans home, Randall Bare, a Vietnam veteran from Jackson County who serves on the West Virginia Veterans Council, asked Justice about ending a state tax on veterans’ retirement plans.
Bare told Justice he knew the tax costs a single veteran between $40 and $50 each month.
“That’s an investment. It’s not a gimme,” Bare said. “It’s the one (Gov. Gaston Caperton) put on us in 1989. Why did they choose the vets to tax their retirement? It wasn’t fair. It was targeted. We don’t want anything that’s going to cost you and your budget funding, but we don’t feel this taxation is right for us.”
Justice told Bare that he thought the amount of revenue generated from the tax, which he estimated as being near or less than $4 million, was relevant to his ability to phase it out or end it altogether.
“Today, I will draft legislation to eradicate it,” Justice said. “I’ve addressed this, and I’m waiting for numbers, waiting for true numbers. I’ve heard numbers all over the road. Our state can’t take a $400 million hit, but it’s not that. It’s not $400 million.”
Lisa Skeens, a retired Cabell County Schools teacher and a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, asked Justice what he was going to do to keep teachers in West Virginia to bolster the state’s education system. Skeens said West Virginia’s best and brightest teachers are fleeing the state for better pay and benefits; she cited increasing burdens on teachers due to cuts to the Public Employees Insurance Agency.
Justice took the chance to tout his education plan, which made its debut on Feb. 23, in the form of Senate Bill 420.
The bill supplies a pay raise worth $808 for all classroom teachers, and it will eliminate state support for the Regional Education Service Agency, commonly referred to as RESA. The proposal also calls for the elimination of the West Virginia Office of Education Performance Audits and establishes a County Superintendents Advisory Council. The bill also would change laws regarding the circumstances in which the West Virginia Board of Education could take control of a county public school system.
Skeens, who also represented the Marine Corps League Detachment 340 of Huntington, said she left the meeting hopeful but plans to keep an eye and ear on Justice’s and the Legislature’s actions.
“I’m going to keep him to his word,” Skeens said. “I want to hold him to the education standards. I could not feel more strongly about that because I know young teachers are leaving. I spent most of my career in Cabell County. We have outstanding teachers. We really do. I hate to lose them because of continuing cuts to PEIA and doubling the copay. It makes it harder and harder without salary increases, and it puts a burden on the backbone of building our future.”
See more from The Herald-Dispatch