In his second State of the State address, Governor Jim Justice provided a message of optimism that repeatedly pointed back to the state’s dire economic outlook just one year ago.
In a nearly 50-minute speech to a joint meeting of the House and Senate, Governor Justice outlined improvements in the state’s economy, addressed ongoing issues such as the opioid crisis and a slate of priorities that include a phasing out of the state’s business inventory tax, legislation that he hopes will boost the natural gas industry, increased attention to community and technical colleges and a promise of no tax hikes.
In his typically casual tone, Justice began his address with a joke about the temperature outside the Capitol as well as that inside the House Chamber.
“How can it be 65 degrees or whatever outside right now, 85 in my office and whatever it is in here?” Justice asked the House chamber as he began. “But, let's just hope this: That this is the hottest it gets in here for the next 60 days.”
Such a comment comes after a divisive session last year and an extended budget impasse while Justice was still a Democrat -- before switching back to the Republican party last August. While last year’s session was marked by budgetary issues that almost forced a government shutdown, Justice spent much this year’s speech describing a more hopeful economic prognosis. Early on in his speech, however, he did address continued problems related to opioid addiction.
“We have to stop. We have to stop this terrible drug epidemic. We have to. If we don't, it will cannibalize us. You know, just recently we had to dispatch the National Guard to Huntington to try to stop the terrible shootings that were going on in Huntington,” Justice said. “You know, we know we have to build treatment facilities or we have to have additional social workers or we have to do additional law enforcement. Do we not? Of course we do.”
In a nod to the fiscal strains of 2017, Justice pulled out platters for the leadership of both parties. Except these platters were not covered in bull manure like the one he unveiled last year before vetoing a budget bill.
“I've got four of these that we’re delivering. And we’re delivering them to our Speaker and our President, and [Minority Leaders] Tim Miley and Roman Prezioso,” Justice explained. “They're a little bit different and you'll open them up. I got one for myself, because I didn't think they'd give me one. It has got a big giant Hersey Kiss, it's got a wonderful WVU or West Virginia-type boutonniere and it's got an 8-Track tape that says, 'Happy Days.'"
As expected, Justice also mentioned economic possibilities announced last fall with China Energy, which has been touted as a potential $83.7 billion investment in the natural gas and petrochemical industries.
“It could really happen. And the reason it could probably happen is two things. And these are trump cards that we have and they are true trump cards. President Trump genuinely wants the trade imbalance with China to change and President Trump has put his first foot forward to say a big part of that change is going to happen in West Virginia,” said the governor. “And I'll promise you, President Trump and I are friends and President Trump doesn't want me calling him saying, 'Donald, why isn't it happening?’"
In looking forward to this session and the forthcoming budget, Justice noted that the state’s revenues stand above projections for the first time in five years. With that in mind, Justice says his proposed budget would more than triple the Division of Tourism’s funding -- from $6 million to $20 million annually.
“For every dollar that flows into tourism, it is unbelievable -- the multiplier effect that comes right back to us. We have got to market ourselves. At some point in time, you've got to get tired of waking up and watching the TV and watching the TV say 'Come to New York' or 'Come to Michigan.' It's driving me crazy,” said Justice, again referencing comments he made during last year’s State of the State.
Justice also proposed a one percent pay raise for all state employees, as well as an additional bump for teachers that would amount to five percent over five years. Other priorities for Justice include making community and technical colleges free and also increasing agricultural industries across the state.
Establishing a new acronym, Justice also noted a proposed repeal of the state’s business inventory tax by stating “JCTAW: Just cut taxes and win."
In closing and again touching on an extended metaphor of his governorship serving as coach of West Virginia, Justice invited the Greenbrier East girls basketball team to the floor for a cheer.
“Best!” they screamed, with Justice telling West Virginians to think of themselves as the best. It was a message of optimism that he hopes can be a theme of the legislative session.