By Phil Kabler
For the West Virginia Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Wednesday marked the start of the 84th Legislature, highlighted by Gov. Jim Justice’s third State of the State address, an hour-long speech that took a turn toward the conventional.
Unlike his first two State of the State addresses, when he eschewed teleprompters and prepared texts for whiteboards, ad libs, and a variety of props, Justice was much more subdued on Wednesday.
He touted a turnaround in state economic fortunes from budget deficits when he took office in January 2017 to a current record budget surplus, and pledged to do more to grow the state.
“Use me. I’m a resource that can be used, and I’m a resource that can help,” Justice told the joint assembly of the Legislature. “Now, I think big…with a lot of creativity. Absolutely, look at my track record. I’m not going to let you down.”
Justice also followed tradition, speaking from the podium on the House Speaker’s dais, giving an address that had a much more formal tone, perhaps a tip-off to his 2020 reelection campaign. Two days earlier, Justice announced he would run for a second term as governor.
During the speech, Justice unveiled plans for an ambitious new drug abuse treatment and job training program, pledged a new round of 5 percent pay raises for teachers, service personnel and state employees, and upped a pledge of new funding for PEIA from $100 million to $150 million.
Justice’s proposals ranged from the sublime, including shifting more state road funding to secondary road maintenance as well as increasing state tourism promotion funding, to the grandiose, including a call to construct a series of lakes across the state, noting, “The only thing we don’t have is an ocean.”
In his key proposal, Justice called for investing a total of $45 million this year in his “Jim’s Dream” program, an ambitious and still not fully sketched out program to fight the state’s opioid drug abuse crisis with a combination of substance abuse treatment and vocational education programs.
Legislators, including Sen. Doug Facemire, D-Braxton, expressed skepticism over the proposal, saying they want to see details of how the program will work, as well as what its on-going costs will be.
“Before this Finance Committee goes further in approving this plan, I think we should know the plan,” Facemire said during a Senate Finance Committee budget briefing.
Calling education “the hotspot that can really change our image,” Justice pledged another round of teacher pay raises, upped his commitment for PEIA funding to $150 million, and called for salary incentives to recruit and retain math, science, foreign language, and special education teachers.
He also committed $5 million to expand the Communities in the Schools program to assist underprivileged children statewide – a program endorsed in the State of the State with a cameo video by basketball star Shaquille O’Neil.
The 5 percent average pay raise proposal would provide a second year of $2,120 pay raises for teachers, $1,150 for school service personnel, and $2,370 for state employees, at a total cost of about $167 million.
Justice also endorsed repeal of the state property tax on business inventory, drawing the loudest cheer of the evening, as well as partial repeal of the state income tax on Social Security retirement benefits, proposals that would cut tax collections by nearly $200 million a year.
While many of the new programs Justice is proposing are made possible by an economic upturn that has produced a record mid-year state budget surplus of $186 million, legislators questioned whether those programs are sustainable if the economy cools off.
Justice also advocated legislation to approve banking regulations in order to allow the state to move forward with legalization of medical marijuana on July 1 – but also stated, “I am adamantly, adamantly, etched in stone, adamantly against recreational marijuana.”
That puts Justice at odds with House Democrats, who are advocating legalization of recreational marijuana.
Justice also called for creation of a state intermediate appeals court – a long debated and controversial proposal – calling it a way to restore “honor and integrity” to a court system rocked by the convictions of two Supreme Court justices in federal court.
The State of the State address kicked off the 60-day regular session, which runs through March 9.