Relationship remains strained between Justice, Legislature

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice addresses House of Delegates during the legislative session. (Photo by Perry Bennett, W.Va. Legislature Photography)


The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register

WHEELING, W.Va.  — During his first seven months in office, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has dumped cow manure on a budget passed by state lawmakers, called some of them names, including “poodle,” and accused members of walking away from the needs of seniors, veterans and the state’s youth as they reduced state spending.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice addresses House of Delegates during the legislative session.
(Photo by Perry Bennett, W.Va. Legislature Photography)

At other times, it appeared the Democratic governor might be in line with the thinking of Senate Republicans on such issues as tax reform.

But in the end, neither Justice nor most lawmakers were satisfied with the overall results of West Virginia Legislature this year. The body failed to achieve accord on many issues — including tax reform.

And the relationship between the executive and legislative branches of state government remains bristly.

“He (Justice) was elected as chief officer of the state, and he needs to get serious about managing the entire administration,” said Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio. “There is no question this is holding the state back. He literally has no allies left. Every group in the Legislature he has alienated. He hasn’t held back from attacking anybody, and there’s hardly anybody that hasn’t received a slight from him at some point.”

Justice’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

‘Poodles’ and ‘Gold-Plated Toilets’

Shortly after taking office in late January, Justice began to refer to Ferns as a “poodle” — a reference to Ferns’ nipping at Justice’s heels about the governor’s failure to pay his taxes in full. Justice reportedly owes the state about $4.4 million in taxes, which he has said represent disputed assessments.

But Ferns said there did appear to be a time during the special legislative session in June that Justice and Senate leadership agreed on tax reform, and on phasing out of the state’s income tax in favor of a consumption tax.

“He adopted our position on tax reform, then embraced and advocated for it,” Ferns said. “The relationship between the Senate President (Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson) and the governor was strong by the time the session ended. There were obvious problems with getting the tax reform passed, but the governor’s relationship with the Senate was not one of the obstacles.”

But after the start of July, the governor’s tone seemed to change, according to Ferns.

“There was a very obvious turning point where someone in the administration made the decision to start blaming the Legislature for everything,” he said.

In a press release dated July 12, Justice called “bullsnot” on the Senate’s plan to spend $860,000 to upgrade eight restrooms at the State Capitol, and bring them up to code with Americans With Disabilities Act specifications. Justice said the money would be better spent on drug addiction programs in the state.

“Based on how poorly the Legislature did this past year, the taxpayers shouldn’t pay them for a new outhouse — much less a new luxury bathroom,” Justice said. “We’ve got schools with bathrooms that don’t work and these politicians want the taxpayers to pay for gold-plated toilets? You’ve got to be kidding me … “

In recent days, Justice also has been accusing the Legislature of walking away from the needs of “miners, seniors, the disabled and vets” by not passing his tax reform package. Ferns interpreted Justice’s words as attacking the Legislature as a whole.

“I called Mitch and asked him, ‘Did something happen?”” Ferns said. “The verbiage he is using now has changed. … He told me, ‘I’m as confused as you are.’”

Ferns has his own theory for Justice’s change in tone.

“The timing of the press releases led up to new tax liens being filed against the governor’s companies by the State Tax Department — an agency he oversees as chief executive of the state,” he said. “He was trying to distract the public from news stories about his not paying taxes.

Democrats and ‘Justice For All’

Justice does appear to have allies within his own party.

Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, believes Justice is just making honest statements about what he is witnessing in Charleston.

“The governor has been critical of the Legislature and I don’t blame him,” he said “House and Senate leadership can’t agree with each other, which I think has frustrated the governor and he sees their inability to work together as obstructing any progress in our state. He’s not a career politician and now he’s seeing the reality of too many politicians being more worried about their re-election than they are of actually doing the job they were elected to do.”

West Virginia Democratic Party Chairman Belinda Biafore noted Justice is a first-time governor.

“The governor just needed to come in and get his feet wet and learn how the system works,”she said. “In three years, Republican leadership has thrown our state into fiscal chaos. They claim to have the votes (to pass legislation) — and they do. But they don’t follow through. You can understand the governor’s frustration. Anybody would be frustrated.”

Republican outlook

Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, was among those most vocal after Justice not only vetoed a budget passed by the Legislature during the regular session — but then put a copy of it on a platter, covered it with cow manure and presented his veto to the Senate Clerk’s Office.

West Virginia Legislature photo
Ryan Weld

“I would tell the governor the person who might be on the wrong side with you today might be the person you need next week, and you need to find common ground,” Weld said. “Eventually you are going to need our help if you are going to get your proposals through our body. It doesn’t help when you are going around state, blaming it all on us and demonizing us.”

All is not lost, however, according to Weld.

“I don’t think where we’re at now will be the status quo. Fences can be mended. It’s just the constant hyperbole that is hurting the relationship. But we will always be willing to listen to him,” Weld said.

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