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WV governor: Clock is ticking on budget

By PHIL KABLER

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Standing beside his electronic countdown clock outside the Governor’s Office as it counted down to the midway point of the 60-day regular session of the West Virginia Legislature, Gov. Jim Justice lamented Thursday the lack of legislative counter-proposals on his 2017-18 state budget plan.

Gov. Jim Justice speaks Thursday outside his office of his concern about the West Virginia Legislature reaching the halfway point of its regular session without passing a state budget. 
(Photo by Kenny Kemp)

“This is the sole and only piece of legislation that has to be passed,” Justice said. “It’s got to be done. I have no clue why in the world it’s not being done.”

To date, Justice has offered two proposals to close a $500 million funding shortfall, one that would raise about $400 million in new taxes, primarily through a business gross receipts tax and an increase in the consumer sales tax, and a Budget 2.0 plan that would raise about $330 million, predominately through higher taxes on tobacco and sugary soft drinks.

Justice said he suspects the Legislature hasn’t unveiled its budget plan because those working on it are having difficulty closing the $500 million deficit strictly through spending cuts.

“The bottom line is just this: They can’t get there without hurting you, and they know it,” he said.

Justice criticized Republicans who are opposed to tax increases, calling them “part of the problem, not a part of the solution.”

Relating reaction to his appearances in House and Senate Republican caucuses, the governor said, “You had people standing and saying, ‘Never. Never are we going to do this or that.’ ”

Justice added, “You’ve got a faction saying, ‘I’m a Republican first and I’m a West Virginian second,’ and I don’t like that.”

Justice said he is willing to listen to proposals for spending cuts, and said his administration is looking at ways to consolidate programs and services and reduce costs, but he warned, “We can’t cut ourselves to oblivion.”

He added, “If we take anything else away, it’s going to drive more people out of West Virginia.”

Justice isn’t the first governor to use the 30th day of the legislative session as an opportunity to vent over the lack of progress on the budget plan.

Last year, then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin did news interviews expressing his frustration that the session was half over, with no legislative action on his proposals to close what was then a $350 million deficit in the 2016-17 budget.

That was on Feb. 11, 2016. The Legislature ultimately passed the budget bill on June 14, 124 days later.

Justice said Thursday there won’t be a repeat of that type of budget impasse on his watch.

“We won’t be going home. That’s all there is to it,” Justice said, saying he will keep the Legislature in session, potentially without pay, to come up with a budget.

Last year, the Legislature recessed from mid-March until mid-May without resolution of the budget impasse.

Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, R-Putnam, and House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, said work is ongoing on alternate budget proposals.

“It’s a work in progress,” Nelson said following Justice’s news conference, adding, “We’ll definitely have something to the floor before the last day of the session.”

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