By ALI SCHMITZ
SLAB FORK, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice touted raising taxes Sunday at the launch of his statewide Save Our State Tour at the Coalfields Expressway roads project in Raleigh County. More than 200 people attended the event.
Justice, who said during his campaign he would not raise taxes, said the increases would create jobs and improve infrastructure. After taking office, he changed his position on tax increases. He said without them, the state will continue to suffer economically.
“We’re too good to die, but we’re all dying,” Justice said. “We’re right on the verge, right on the verge of doing something that will be the detriment of West Virginia forever.”
Justice said the state has already cut too much, and tax increases are the best solution.
“In order to get to the sacred ground of ‘balance the budget,’ there’s got to be more than ‘balance the budget.’ You got to find a way to grow,” he said. “If all we do is try to balance the budget, we’re going to die.”
A main focus of his speech was a massive highways construction program that would be financed through a $20 increase in the annual license plate renewal fee, a 10-cents-per-gallon increase in the state gasoline tax and a $1 increase in turnpike tolls. Justice said the plan would create 48,000 jobs.
The average driver in Charleston spends $1,357 a year in additional expenses due to poor roads, according to the latest report on West Virginia roads by TRIP, a national transportation research group. Thomas Smith, state secretary of transportation, said the increased fees would be far less than car repair costs.
“If we continue to underinvest in this next year, if we don’t find a way to invest in highways, we’ll be telling you that the cost has gone up yet again,” Smith said.
Justice emphasized the tax increases would not be permanent and were only serving as a stop-gap measure.
“I know it’s going to hurt a little bit in the beginning, but it’s going to be so good that you won’t believe it,” Justice said.
The King Coal Highway and Coalfields Expressway in Southern West Virginia would be a primary focus of the construction program. The project has been delayed due to the decline of the coal mining industry. Justice, a Raleigh County native, said the project would put unemployed coal miners back to work. Multiple towns throughout the area are not connected to the highway system.
“The people are so good, and a lot of times they are forgotten. They’re not going to be forgotten with me,” Justice said.
When completed, the Coalfields Expressway will be about 65 miles long. Only 8 miles are open to drivers today.
Justice also proposed a business park called the Mountain State Connector that would serve as a backup to government data in case of a federal government breach or private banking breach. Justice said the location would be in a 250-mile radius from Washington, D.C., and serve as a modern-day equivalent to The Greenbrier’s secret bunker built in the 1960s to house Congress in the case of a nuclear disaster.
“West Virginia is the logical connector to be a backup system for all of that information,” Justice said.
Justice said he’d propose the plan to President Donald Trump soon.
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