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Governor outlines bright future, with some challenges, in State of the State Address.

CHARLESTON – West Virginians have come to expect Gov. Jim Justice to step into coach mode for his State of the State Address – offering a pep talk illustrated along the way with various props.

Wednesday’s address was no different. “It’s a great, great evening in the state of West Virginia,” he began. Along the way he pulled out an ax and a fishing tackle box, and passed out Division of Highways vests for everyone to don.

Legislators and guests listen to the speech from the House floor.

Amid the optimism, he also put forth some budget and policy proposals. But before getting to those, he earned his biggest standing ovation of the evening for his comments on the recent Division of Corrections Academy Nazi salute photo that led to several firings and dismissal of the entire class.

“In all honesty, what happened was not good,” he said. “On my watch, there’s no place for hate and there’s no place for anti-Semitism.”

He took out an ax and tackle box to relate the story of a woman in need he helped by buying those items from her, and the appreciation she expressed. He used that to talk about how he’s viewed his role in the state, and how others have worked to make it better.

“Nobody does anything alone,” he said. “You should be very, very proud of what you have accomplished. … I was the maybe catalyst who brought hope. That to me means everything.”

Justice honors Medal of Honor recipient Woody Williams.

He took time to review the state’s financial turnaround in recent years. “The state of our state is strong and it’s growing stronger every single day.” In Fiscal Year 2019, West Virginia saw record revenue growth of $511 million.

Halfway into this year, projections are $33 million behind and he’s proposing a more conservative budget. “We’re Ok. We’re not knocking it out of the park,” he said. “There are still lots of people to help.”

That brought him to his proposals (See related story on his budget for more details.) He wants to create a Medicaid Families First Reserve Fund to lock up $150 million to protect services for Medicaid recipients.

Most controversially, he wants to try again to eliminate the personal property tax on manufacturing inventory, equipment and machinery. “The business inventory and machinery tax is holding us back in some areas.” While looking for ways to eliminate it, he wants to make sure that the counties, schools and municipalities it supports don’t lose the money. “I would like it gone – at least gone in time.”

Justice tells a story about his ax and tackle box.

Justice took some time to list various companies that are brining jobs to the state. He focused on one, Ramaco Resources, a coal producer, that believes coal is too expensive to burn and is working to make carbon fiber out of coal that will be only a quarter as heavy as steel but twice as strong.

Ramaco has promised to develop a research facility at WVU, he said, and may bring a plant to southern West Virginia.

Justice broke out the orange DOH vests to praise Transportation Secretary Byrd White and Deputy Secretary Jimmy Wriston for their work moving Roads to Prosperity forward and repairing highways. With his usual optimism, he told them to get prepared for a major influx of funds when the Trump administration passes its infrastructure plan – funds to complete Corridor H and the Coalfields Expressway, among other things.

Justice praised the work of the Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy in Preston County, acknowledged two recent graduates in the House gallery and said his staff has found money, without increasing the state budget, to start one in Montgomery. He received another standing ovation for that.

Legislators and guests don orange DOH vests.

Justice plans to help tackle the drug trafficking problem by ordering the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety to form a new police unit, called the Narcotics Intelligence Unit, at the cost of $1.9 million, to intercept traffickers trying to enter the state. His message to the traffickers: “We are going to bust your ass. That’s all there is to it.”

Justice also drew standing ovations for his proposals to end the wait list for the I/DD Waiver program and to hire more Child Protection Services workers.

Justice has long touted tourism and said that the state’s tourism industry growth has topped the national average by 58%.

Justice took considerable time to honor Medal of Honor recipient Woody Williams, who is working across the state to get Gold Star memorials built to commemorate those who died while serving during armed conflict.

“You may think you’re important. I may think I’m important. We can’t hold a candle to this man,” he said.

In a break from tradition, he invited Williams to join him at the podium, where Williams talked about erecting memorials across the state, and his goal to build the nation’s largest on the Capitol grounds. Williams said they’re just $12,000 shy of full funding for the memorial and Justice pledged the money from the state contingency fund.

Justice raised one last legislative goal: creating an intermediate court of appeals, which has failed to move in previous years. “We need to do it,” he said. “We’ve got to get that across the finish line.”

He concluded in coach mode, using imagery from the Olympics. “Go win the gold. God bless you.”

Democrat response
Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, and Sen. William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, provided the minority’s response after the address.

Sponagule took objection to Justice’s positive spin, citing the state’s declining population – down 57,516 people from 2014 – and bottom rankings in GDP, wage and salary growth, personal income and other measures.

“I’ve heard a lot of unbelievable stuff in my lifetime,” he said, “and a lot of it was out there for the last hour and 15 minutes.”
Ending the inventory tax, he said, will most likely come on the shoulders of property owners, through higher property taxes. He wants to see where the $100 million will come from.

Ihlenfeld said he, like Justice, is an optimist. But people need facts. “The picture isn’t as bright as the governor painted.” People need to hear the hard facts of what the state is facing. “We’re proud, we’re hardworking, we’re resilient, and we can deal with that.”

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