Disappointed and Defeated, West Virginia Governor Lets Budget Become Law Without His Signature

by | June 22, 2017 AT 12:00 PM

By Phil Kabler

Calling the $4.225 billion West Virginia budget bill “a travesty” that he can’t possibly sign, Gov. Jim Justice announced Wednesday he will let the bill become law without his signature.

“I’m just going to let it go into law,” he said during a 35-minute news conference Wednesday morning. “I can’t possibly put my name on it, but we can’t afford to hurt the innocent more.”

Justice said a veto of Senate Bill 1013 at this late date would assure a partial state government shutdown on July 1, leaving thousands of government employees without paychecks and thousands of retirees without pension payments.

A somber and contrite Justice — in contrast to his April 13 budget veto, in which he ceremoniously featured bull manure on a silver platter to display his displeasure with that version of the 2017-18 budget — lamented what he said are lost opportunities to turn the state around.

Besides hurting teachers, miners, seniors, veterans, and providing no money to promote and market the state, Justice said, the budget relies on “fake surplus money” to minimize Medicaid funding cuts and will leave West Virginia facing future budget deficits, growing from $179 million in the next budget year to $486 million by 2021-22.

“There is no plan here,” he said. “All this does is kick the can down the road, and there’s massive budget holes in the out years.”

Justice added, “If I had time, I’d would veto this in an absolute millisecond. There’s no way that this should not be vetoed, but there’s no time, and it’s a terrible shame, because it’s going to hurt a lot of people.”

The governor blamed members of both parties in each house of the Legislature for failing to reach agreement on a plan to raise revenue for the state, and blamed himself for failing to exert sufficient leadership to get the deal done.

“There’s no way I can feel good about it,” Justice said. “I don’t know if Jesus himself could bring this bunch together. I surely have never seen anything like it.”

For several days during the 20-day special session, Justice acted as a mediator, shuttling between various legislative caucuses to work out a compromise, and he continued to meet with legislators up to the final hours of the session.

On Wednesday, Justice criticized Republicans who opposed tax increases of any kind — who, in his words, said, “By God, we’re not going to do anything” — as well as Democrats whom he said balked at the last minute over his plan to raise sales taxes while lowering income taxes and creating a tiered system for coal severance taxes.

Justice said legislators who voted for the “bare-bones” budget bill need to be held accountable, and said he might campaign against some of them in the 2018 election.

“Do you really think we’re going to come back next session, in an election year, and come back and fix this thing?” he said, expressing pessimism for budget reform in the 2018 regular session, less than seven months away.

Later Wednesday, legislative leaders applauded Justice’s decision to allow the budget to become law.

“While there are necessary cuts, and reductions are never easy for those affected, this budget is not the disaster scenario the governor paints it to be,” House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said.

“The budget the Legislature passed spends about $85 million less than last year, and importantly, places no additional tax burden on our citizens,” Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said in a statement. “West Virginia’s dire financial situation will force us to make a choice in the future: We will have to continue making cuts to programs and services, or we must pass meaningful, comprehensive tax reform.”

Justice used his signature whiteboards to illustrate programs cut or eliminated under the budget bill, which cuts spending by about $186 million from the governor’s original budget plan.

That includes no pay raises for teachers, no income tax relief for retirees or military veterans, no expansion of historic-building restoration tax credits, elimination of funding for the Women’s Commission, no funding for his Save Our State economic development program, major cuts in funding for fairs and festivals and no new funding for tourism advertising.

“Why is it, every time we turn on the TV, we’ve got to watch Michigan? For crying out loud, why can’t we ever see us?” Justice said, having frequently advocated increasing state tourism promotion to the level of the highly successful “Pure Michigan” campaign.

Justice said the main silver lining from the 20-day special session was passage of bills to provide funding for up to $2.8 billion in road bonds, which he said will create jobs and stimulate the economy.

Without the roads plan, Justice said, “The budget that our legislators passed would have absolutely devastated this state beyond belief and bankrupted us.”

Another silver lining, he said, is that the budget does not impose major cuts on public education.

Also, Justice said, “We avoided a shutdown and, thank God, we’re going to send the Legislature home.”

The Legislature will reconvene Monday, to bring the special session to an end.

Also Wednesday, Justice said he had decided to let the budget bill become law without his signature, rather than use line-item veto authority to restore some funding measures, saying those funds would have had to be “back-filled” in future budgets.

(c)2017 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.)