In his third State of the State address, Gov. Jim Justice promised to capitalize on West Virginia’s recently reported economic turnaround -- focused on education, roads, the state’s drug problem and rollbacks on taxes.
Justice’s third address to lawmakers and West Virginians comes just days after he announced a bid for re-election. He began his nearly hour-long speech by comparing the present with the moment he took office, two years ago.
“It would be impossible for any of us to disagree that the first time you ever saw me the first time I walked in the door, things from pretty doggone tough. The first set of books they handed me -- I’m not exaggerating any way in any way, shape, form or fashion -- but our state was bankrupt. There’s no way around it,” Justice said.
With December’s revenue numbers putting the state at a $185.9 million surplus six months into the fiscal year, Justice outlined proposals that make use of that turnaround with additional spending in the budget.
“We haven’t had any cut budgets recently and we’re not going to have one today either. Today, we have things that are so good -- surpluses, no new taxes,” he said.
After a nine-day, statewide teacher strike last year during the legislative session, Justice focused much of his speech on public education. He touted accomplishments made last session.
“We had decided to invest. We absolutely got rid of so much of the ridiculous testing and we put control back in the local hands as much as we can,” Justice said. “We absolutely gave a five percent teachers pay raise and we ended up giving a five percent across the board pay raise to all state employees. We did change our image. We still got a long ways to go, but we did change it.”
Weeks ahead of the midterm election, Justice promised to provide another 5 percent average pay increase to all public employees and $100 million dedicated to fund the Public Employees Insurance Agency.
During the State of the State address, Justice offered the same raise -- but stretched the PEIA funding to $150 million, promising that it wouldn’t be taken from the upcoming budget. He didn’t explain the mechanism for that funding.
Justice also said he plans to shift some of the money raised through his road bond project over to maintaining secondary roads.
But arguably the most ambitious program for the governor’s 2019 agenda deals with the state’s continued problems with drug addiction. Justice unveiled a plan he calls Jim’s Dream.
“The ‘J’ is going to stand for jobs the ‘I’ is going to be in the ‘M’ is gonna be making and a little apostrophes upside down and we twisted around to make it a you succeed,” Justice said.
It’s a comprehensive drug addiction treatment program that aims to train those stricken by substance abuse disorder and put people back into the workforce.
“But you see, what I’m going to ask you for is $5 million to put into prevention. I’m going to ask you for $10 million to put into DHHR into treatment,” he said. “I’m going to ask you for $10 million for staffing and replacement and maintenance of equipment at the training centers -- at the Vo-Tech centers.”
Nearing the end of his address, the governor said he supports a clean-up of the state’s medical marijuana program, which is set to kick off on July 1. He also noted that he is against the legalization of the drug for recreational use.
Justice also announced plans to repeal the state’s business inventory tax, as well as the tax on social security income. The business inventory tax, which funds public education through counties brings in $135 million annually. State revenue officials told media earlier Wednesday that 22 percent of West Virginians are subject to the income tax on social security, drawing in about $50 million each year.
Democratic leaders in the Legislature called Justice’s speech “feel good” and said the governor has taken credit for the economic turnaround, when it truly belongs to the boom in the natural gas industry.
Editor’s note: Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso and House Minority Leader Tim Miley will join us 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 10, on The Legislature Today, on West Virginia Public Broadcasting.