By JOSELYN KING
The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register
WHEELING, W.Va. — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice challenged state lawmakers to meet five hours each day on West Virginia’s budget, called legislators “baby snowflakes” and addressed a question about his own delinquent taxes tweeted by Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns during a town hall forum in Wheeling Tuesday night.
The event took place inside the Troy Theater at Wheeling Jesuit University, and focused on West Virginia’s expected budget deficit for next year of nearly $450 million.
Justice — owner of The Greenbrier resort and other companies — reportedly owes about $15 million in unpaid taxes and fines to several states, including about $4.4 million to West Virginia.
“When will @WVGovernor pay the millions in past due taxes his companies owe the state?” Ferns, R-Ohio, tweeted to the forum.
Justice said he pays about $70 million annually in taxes, and that the $15 million has gone unpaid because he is disputing these tax charges.
“One thing that you can rest assured — for every single dime, every single operation I have ever had, I’ve paid (taxes). Everything. You don’t need to worry about that,” he said. “You can take that completely off the table.”
The unpaid amount is in escrow, and will be paid when an agreement is reached, he told the crowd.
“It’s complicated, and there’s a lot to it,” he said. “I think the last thing that Senator Ferns needs to do is be occupied with that.”
Ferns, in Charleston, confirmed he sent the tweet.
“And he (Justice) dodged the question,” Ferns said. “I was giving him another opportunity to give an answer.”
Justice was next asked what he could do to get lawmakers to “check their egos,”get along and pass a balanced state budget. He responded by saying sometimes he can be “Jim,” sometimes “James” and sometimes “Jimmy.”
“But you don’t get to where I am in life by just being ‘Jimmy’ all the time,” he said. “For the other side to say, ‘we don’t like that’ — I would say, ‘Grow up, you bunch of baby snowflakes.’ Let’s get it done.
“Tomorrow, let’s get in a room and dedicate five hours a day to pass a budget. Let’s work through every single point, and let’s get there. Let’s quit being babies. This is serious stuff that really impacts everybody’s lives in this state. … I will listen to any and every idea, and I hope they will listen to mine.”
Ferns said lawmakers already spend more than five hours each day working on the budget.
“(Justice) is only in the Capitol one day a week, so I wouldn’t expect him to know how much time we’re spending on the budget,” Ferns said. “Five hours wouldn’t even scratch the surface.”
During Tuesday’s forum, Justice addressed Republican lawmakers’ plan to cut subsidies for the greyhound racing industry as part of efforts to balance the budget. Justice said the $15 million saved by eliminating the subsidies is “real money,” but doesn’t come close to closing the $450 million budget gap.
“Whatever we cut, ask one question: Are more people going to come (to West Virginia), or are more people going to leave?” he said. “If more people leave, revenue goes down. That gets you to the right answer.
“Now, I’m not going to choose dogs over our people. If it gets to being the dogs getting this done or our people, I’m choosing our people because that’s just smart. But I’m telling you everything we take away takes away a part of our well-being.”
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