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WV Gov. Justice vetoes budget, calling it ‘bull you-know-what’


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice on Thursday vetoed a budget bill passed by West Virginia lawmakers last weekend, saying it would be like “signing our death certificate” and unveiling his latest prop — an actual piece of bull excrement, hidden under a covered dish and revealed as a metaphor for the budget.

Gov. Jim Justice reveals a platter of “bull you-know-what” Thursday afternoon as he prepares to veto a budget bill approved last weekend by the West Virginia Legislature at the end of its 2017 regular session.
(Photo by Justin Rogers)

During his announcement in the Capitol Rotunda, Justice used three whiteboards to cross out a list of people, programs and initiatives he said the Legislature’s budget (HB 2018) would harm, including West Virginia and Marshall universities, poor, disabled and senior West Virginians and the state’s financial health.

He also said the vetoed budget failed to provide seed money for his $2 billion-plus road construction program, which he said would create 48,000 jobs.

“They’re gone — all of them, gone,” the governor said, marking them off the list.

He referred to “nothing-burgers” and “mayo sandwiches,” two food props he used earlier in the legislative session, before unveiling the third platter, containing what he called “bull you-know-what.”

The governor also criticized the politics surrounding the struggle over the budget, blaming Republicans, as well as Democrats, for stifling a potential late-hour budget compromise Saturday night.

“We don’t have to be this way,” he said. “And if we’re this way, you know what’s going to get done? Nothing.”

Afterward, Justice chief of staff Nick Casey said he hopes there will be “continuous conversation” with House and Senate leaders to work on a new budget plan.

Casey said he believes the proposal that was being negotiated Saturday night with the Senate, to combine Justice’s funding initiatives with a Senate plan to phase out income taxes, replacing them with a broad-based 7 percent consumption tax, is a good starting point for discussions.

“We think this is a very positive pathway forward with the governor’s plan,” said Casey, who added that the Senate plan also calls for tiered rates for severance taxes that increase when coal or natural gas markets are strong, and decrease when market prices fall.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, attended Justice’s announcement, and said afterward that he believes the Senate can work with the governor to come up with a budget plan — if it incorporates the tax reform measures proposed by the Senate.

“I’m very happy the governor recognizes that we need tax reform to get the budget done,” Carmichael said, adding that, without it, “there’s no appetite to do an overarching tax increase.”

House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said later Thursday afternoon he was disappointed that Justice vetoed what he called a “responsible budget,” and said there is very little, if any, interest among House Republicans in the budget plan that was being negotiated Saturday night.

House Speaker Tim Armstead responds to Gov. Jim Justice’s decision to veto the budget bill.
(Photo by Justin Rogers)

“I don’t know where that compromise lies, to be quite honest, because I think there is significant opposition to tax increases in the House of Delegates,” Armstead said.

As for the prop that Justice used to express his disdain for the budget bill he vetoed, Armstead said, “It’s insulting to the people of West Virginia. They sent us here to do a job. They sent us here to protect their wallets.”

Justice’s announcement was attended by a crowd that filled the Rotunda, including invited representatives of business, labor, education and social organizations. The governor began seated at the head of a table, flanked by United Mine Workers union President Cecil Roberts and Murray Energy President Bob Murray, a coal company owner who expressed opposition to Justice when the latter filed for governor in 2015.

Casey said Justice would like to have a general agreement on any budget plan before he calls the Legislature into special session, something Casey said would seem unlikely before late April or early May, at the earliest.

“We would love to have a consensus going in,” he said.

Justice’s veto starts a new countdown, with 78 days to pass a budget before the 2017-18 fiscal year begins on July 1, the day state government would shut down if no budget is approved.

Thursday’s announcement was the latest chapter in a tug-of-war between the governor and Legislature to come up with a 2017-18 budget that closes a $500 million revenue shortfall.

The governor initially proposed a $4.5 billion general revenue budget plan, requiring nearly $400 million in new taxes, including a 0.5 percent increase in the sales tax and a 0.2 percent gross receipts tax, while cutting spending by $26.6 million.

Justice’s budget included new funding for a “Save Our State” economic development and business recruitment plan, a 2 percent pay raise for teachers and a significant increase in funding for state tourism promotion and advertising.

That plan was not well received by legislative leaders, who proposed a “live-within-our-means” budget of $4.05 billion, with no new taxes, but requiring major cuts to public education, higher education, and health care programs.

Justice was openly dismissive of that plan, saying, “What we saw today from the House and Senate only kicks the can around the block. It doesn’t give our classroom teachers a pay raise, it doesn’t increase tourism advertising, it doesn’t bring jobs, and it lacks the tools to jump-start our economy.”

Subsequently, Justice unveiled an alternate budget plan, commonly called Budget 2.0, a $4.394 billion spending plan requiring $224 million in new taxes. Justice’s second plan significantly cut his earlier rates for the sales tax and gross receipts tax but proposed tax increases on cigarettes and sugary soft drinks, which he called the “Better Health Initiative.”

During the session, Justice and his aides negotiated with legislators to come up with a compromise, first with members of the House Finance Committee, which had proposed a $4.27 billion budget, bolstered by $137 million in new revenue by eliminating a number of sales tax exemptions in existing law.

He then turned to the Senate in the final hours of the regular session, to come up with a deal that would salvage most of his budget proposals while incorporating a Senate plan to phase out income taxes, making up the revenue with a broad-based 7 percent consumption tax and a 3.5 percent tax on groceries.

Despite announcing in a 10 p.m. news conference that he was on the “cusp of a deal,” the option fizzled when House leaders declined to consider the plan.

With no other options — since neither house had passed any tax measures — members of the House and Senate finance committees quickly assembled the $4.102 billion budget bill that passed the Senate shortly before midnight, and passed the House early Sunday on party-line votes — the bill that was the topic of Justice’s news event Thursday.

That plan would have made about $160 million in spending cuts — with higher education and Medicaid bearing the brunt of the reductions — and would have raided $90 million from the state’s Rainy Day reserve.

Justice said Thursday that the raid on Rainy Day funds would not sit well with the big three New York bond-rating services.

“They’re going to downgrade us beyond belief,” he warned.

With no new tax revenue, the $4.102 billion plan submitted to the governor was the same total amount as the Senate’s proposed budget — a plan that Justice previously said he would veto “in a millisecond.”

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