By DANIEL TYSON
BECKLEY, W.Va. — During his inaugural Save Our State stop Sunday on the Coalfields Expressway in Slab Fork, Gov. Jim Justice outlined a grim future for West Virginia if his budget proposal, which includes tax increases, isn’t passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature.
Standing at the end of the incomplete Coalfields Expressway, Justice said the revenue increases are needed to help the state through an anemic financial situation. His proposal features $450.15 million raised through a half-percent increase in the sales tax to 6.5 percent; eliminating tax exemptions for professional services and advertising and raising the gasoline excise tax by 10 cents a gallon to 30.5 cents. Justice stressed increases are sunset taxes.
The state GOP legislators want deep cuts, which Justice also recommended to shore up a $450 million shortfall, to balance the budget. The GOP plan, he said, is detrimental to the state and its citizens.
“If all we try to do is balance the budget, we’re going to die,” he said. “I don’t want to raise your taxes. That’s the last thing I want to do. But otherwise, you are going to die and I am going to die.”
He used that last sentence several times during his 20-minute speech.
The governor is receiving messages from the GOP that his budget plan is unpopular, especially the tax increase. But, he explained, the “low-hanging fruit” is gone and the state’s once-vaunted Rainy Day fund, nearly $1 billion a few years ago, is almost dry.
If more deep cuts are instituted, they will hurt seniors and education.
“I don’t think we should raise taxes either, but I don’t know what to do,” he said. “Do you think more people will come here if we cut more? Not a God’s chance on this planet.”
If his budget proposal is passed, Justice said, construction of the 8.9-mile stretch between Slab Fork Road and Mullens will begin immediately.
“I’ll build the damn road, and I’ll build it now,” he said, to a round of applause from the more than 150 people at the ceremony, many local and state politicians.
That nearly nine miles of road building will cost $54 million and create around 1,900 jobs, he said.
Another stretch from Mullens to Welch, in McDowell County, is estimated to cost $110 million and employ about 2,200 workers.
The governor said the expressway will open up commerce to counties struggling financially, because of the downturn of coal. Communities like Pineville and Sophia could attract business, such as manufacturing, warehousing and tourism.
Justice addressed the state’s propensity of hating taxes by saying the increases are only a stop gap measure until West Virginia’s coffers are sound again, a period of a couple years, he estimated.
However, continuing the construction of the Coalfield Expressway and the King Coal Highway will open business opportunities that otherwise would not happen.
“It’s a doorway that should have been open long go,” he said of the highways. “If we don’t get anything done, you are going to die. I am going to die,” he said.
Danny Barr, mayor of Sophia, was pleased to see Justice addressing the expressway.
“He’s the first governor who ever came down here and talked to us about the project,” said Barr.
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