By Phil Kabler, For the West Virginia Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A combination of an election year and tight state finances has resulted in the 2020 regular session of the state Legislature getting off to a fairly low-key start.
The 60-day regular session got underway Wednesday, featuring Gov. Jim Justice’s fourth State of the State address.
Unlike his earlier addresses, which featured multiple props and folksy references to the Frankenstein monster and 18-carat dog messes, Justice’s latest State of the State address was unusually long (running about 82 minutes) and more conventional than in the past.
Justice offered a particularly rosy view of the state’s outlook, touting efforts in his first three years to improve state roads, public schools, and economic opportunities.
“We have changed ourselves from a state that was backwards, and having a tough time, dingy and dark,” he said.
Justice endorsed proposals to rollback the state personal property tax on business equipment and inventory, and to establish an intermediate appeals court – two concepts backed by state business interests.
However, Justice was low-key on both issues, mentioning the intermediate appeals court almost as an afterthought in the closing moments of the long address, and saying of the inventory tax, “I don’t want anyone to doubt that I would like it gone – at least, gone in time.”
He also announced plans to invest an additional $26.4 million into the Department of Health and Human Resources to enhance Child Protective Services and foster care programs overstressed by families shattered by the state opioid crisis, while pledging to set up a Narcotics Intelligence Service to combat the flow of illegal drugs into the state.
Addressing would-be drug dealers, Justice warned, “We are going to bust your ass. That’s all there is to it.”
While Justice toned down the use of props and folksy stories in his 2020 address, he didn’t eliminate them entirely.
While touting his Roads to Prosperity road bond program, and increased state spending for highways maintenance, Justice had Division of Highways’ employees come through the aisles of House chambers handing out reflective vests for legislators to wear – while making clear that they were loaners and not gifts, and needed to be returned after the speech.
The address may be most remembered for an impromptu appearance by World War II veteran and Medal of Honor recipient Woody Williams, to whom Justice yielded the podium so that he could make a pitch for the final $12,000 of funding needed to erect a monument to Gold Star families on the Capitol grounds.
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Two years removed from a record year for state revenue that provided some $500 million of budget surplus, the Justice administration is facing a contracting state economy as it puts together a 2020-21 state budget bill.
As a result, Justice is proposing a “flat” $4.58 billion general revenue budget that includes no pay raises for public school or state employees. That plan is $108.64 million less than the current state budget – and Justice is proposing closing that budget gap by taking that amount out of unused state funding for Medicaid, the state-managed health plan for the state’s poor, disabled and elderly.
Meanwhile, a six-year financial outlook prepared by the administration shows that 2020-21 is likely to be the first of five straight years where state spending will exceed state revenues – as plunging natural gas prices, and dropping coal prices and production put a damper on state tax collections.
Deputy Revenue Secretary Mark Muchow told legislators that a warm winter to date isn’t helping coal or natural gas prices in the short-term, noting, “This weekend, the forecast is for temperatures in the 70s. That’s not good for tax collections. What we need is minus–10 degrees.”
Meanwhile, the first bill moving in the House of Delegates would require November run-off elections for state Supreme Court justices, if no candidate receives at least 40 percent of the vote in the nonpartisan election during May primary elections (HB2008).
Advocates of the bill contend that the new one-off Supreme Court elections could result in individuals being elected to the court with a relatively small percentage of the vote in races with a number of candidates.
That follows 2018 elections where Tim Armstead and Evan Jenkins won election to the high court without either receiving 40 percent of the vote in separate multi-candidates races.