By JOSELYN KING and CASEY JUNKINS
The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register
WHEELING, W.Va. — Northern Panhandle lawmakers said West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice made the right move Wednesday in announcing he would not veto the state budget passed last week, avoiding a government shutdown July 1.
At one point, more than 1,700 people — many of them identifying themselves as state employees — watched online as Justice made his remarks.
“I can’t possibly put my name on this,” he said. “If you want my true feelings about it, I think we have a travesty here.”
Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, said he was glad Justice said he would not veto the measure, assuring state employees they would be paid next month and avoiding a government shutdown.
“As he outlined in his address today, the Senate Republicans passed several different tax reform bills — some with Democrat support, some without — in an attempt to find compromise,” Ferns said. “But unfortunately, none of those made it to the governor’s desk. With no additional revenue available, this budget was the best option for the state.”
Although he voted against the budget Friday night, Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, agreed the bill shouldn’t be vetoed.
“I share in (Justice’s) frustration on the budget, but allowing it to become law was the right thing to do given the fact we are on the brink of a government shutdown,” Fluharty said. “The economic uncertainty is not good for West Virginia and this budget does nothing to move us forward. It lacks a vision for the future and will likely put us right back in the same situation next session.”
Delegate Patrick McGeehan, R-Hancock, sees the budget passed by the Legislature as a step in the right direction toward reducing state spending.
“It’s a more responsible budget passed in a difficult predicament,” McGeehan said. “I’m not entirely satisfied with everything that was authorized, but it was the best alternative considering the personalities in play.”
What Justice says or does “is beyond my control,” McGeehan said.
“The amount of increased spending his office kept proposing, though, would have amounted to hundreds of millions in new taxes, pushed onto our state’s shrinking population,”McGeehan said. “And his spending plan would have dedicated much of that new revenue toward government activities in Charleston proven to be rather wasteful and counterproductive. Hopefully, going forward, decisions will be driven through a rational approach … and not by the populist emotion which seems to have been largely resorted to.”
After more than a month in special session, the House and Senate agreed to a $4.228 billion budget and road revenue measures late Friday.
Justice, a Democrat, said he would have liked to veto the budget. However, he cited the potential of shutting down the government after June 30 in the absence of a new budget.
“There is no way that this should not be vetoed, but there is no time,” Justice said. “We can’t shut the government down.”
In Justice’s view, the approved budget will hurt the state’s coal miners, teachers, veterans, seniors and anyone involved with festivals or tourism.
His plan to give teachers a 2-percent raise, and establish a graduated coal severance tax were included in a tax reform bill shot down by the House. The same measure also would have reduced income tax rates, and given those earning less than $20,000 a year a $150 rebate check.
“We can’t seem to get it. We just don’t get it,” he said. “How bloomin’ dumb can we be?”
Justice denied that he should be blamed for the budgetary dilemma.
“There’s no chance on the planet you can point at me and say I’ve caused us to sit around,” he said.
Justice praised his prediction that severance tax revenue would increase, as they have since the beginning of the year.
He is also “delighted beyond belief” the roads package he proposed passed the Legislature, and there will be a large slate of road projects to begin soon.
House of Delegates Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said the budget passed Friday “reflects the economic realities” West Virginia faces.
“I believe the governor is doing the right thing in ensuring we avoid a government shutdown and easing our employees’ and citizens’ state of mind,” he said. “We knew coming into this year that we would have to make tough decisions to balance this budget, and we heard the message from our citizens that they couldn’t afford the massive tax increases the governor originally sought.”
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said he’s thankful that Justice plans to allow a budget to become law that “places no additional tax burden” on residents. He also urged his legislative colleagues not to abandon efforts to revise the state’s tax code, on which the House and Senate could not reach agreement after weeks of debate.
“West Virginia’s dire financial situation will force us to make a choice in the future: We will have to continue making cuts to programs and services, or we must pass meaningful, comprehensive tax reform,” Carmichael said. “It’s my hope that this responsible budget serves as the starting point for a conversation that will prove that tax reform can bring our state tremendous benefit.”
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