Northern Panhandle Lawmakers Share Justice’s Enthusiasm

WHEELING — State lawmakers representing the Northern Panhandle largely share the optimism for West Virginia’s future Gov. Jim Justice exuded in his State of the State address Wednesday, but House Democrats remain skeptical that the state has made a permanent financial turn for the better.

“A lot of what he said is what I’ve been saying,” said Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio. “I have been optimistic about this session. Last year was the most challenging session … the most challenging year I’ve encountered at the Legislature. It’s a totally different vibe this year because there’s not the same (budget) shortfall.”

And Justice now has a year of political experience under his belt, according to Ferns.

“He has a better understanding of the process,” he said. “His relationship with the Legislature has improved, and his entire approach to the Legislature has improved. What he talked about tonight is the same as what legislators are proposing. Last year, he proposed $450 million in new taxes, and there’s a completely different message this year. He said he didn’t want to raise taxes. … In fact , he wants to reduce the inventory tax. We have had economic studies and reports saying that tax in particular is a job killer. For him to come out and talk about it sends a message that it’s a new day.”

Senate Majority Whip Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, noted Justice’s “enthusiasm and optimism for the future.”

“This time last year, we were looking at a massive budget deficit, but this year we’re in much better shape financially,” he said. “Now we can start to think about pay raises for state employees and teachers, and I share that optimism.”

Weld said he hopes the Legislature can find a way to make technical and community colleges free or more affordable to prospective students this year.

“We have a shortage in tradespeople, and perhaps making these schools free can open up a pathway to college,” he said.

And Weld said while the governor “touched broadly” on how the Legislature must tackle the state’s substance abuse issue, he suspects there will be more effort put forward than what was mentioned.

“I have several proposals that could fill that gap,” Weld, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said.

On the House side, Delegate Joe Canestraro, D-Marshall, termed Justice “very entertaining.”

“The state is doing better, but we still need to be cautious,” he said. “One or two months of good numbers doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods yet.”

Canestraro said he was pleased to hear the governor speak about investment in tourism and economic development, as this is “one of the top priorities of the House Democrats this session.”

But he doesn’t believe the governor proposed a big enough raise for state employees — especially for teachers and correction officers.

The annual 1-percent raise for teachers annually over each of the next five years would equal “just a drop in the bucket for teachers” at $1,600 over the next five years, according to Canestraro.

“We have been told (correctional officers) would need a $6,000-a-year raise just to be competitive,” Canestraro said of Justice.

Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, said he agrees that salaries for teachers, correctional officers and state employees need raised.

“However, when they’re the lowest paid in the country, a 1-percent raise is not a game-changer,” he said.

Fluharty also thought Justice “sounded more like a cheerleader than a coach” seeking to lead West Virginia.

“He painted a utopian picture unrelatable to his constituents,” he said. “The only tax breaks that were mentioned are for corporations, not common West Virginians. I think our people are tired of political props and false promises. They want to see their lives improve, not just the lives of campaign contributors.”

Delegate David Pethtel, D-Wetzel, said he was glad to see the state budget is in much better financial shape than in the past two years. He was also glad to hear Justice’s words about bolstering the state’s education system, and having free community and technical colleges.

“But all that costs money,” Pethtel said. “We have to see what the costs are, and where the money will come from.

“Most people agree the inventory tax is an unfair tax. But if we’re going to eliminate it, it has to be done in such a way that it won’t hurt school systems and county commissions.”

Republican Delegate Pat McGeehan of Hancock County was skeptical of some of Justice’s proposals.

“Sometimes it’s a bit difficult to connect the governor’s use of populist metaphors to any public policy he may or may not be proposing,” he said.

“I’m glad he will not be pushing more taxation, but unfortunately, I believe his office is catering to interest groups to forward another version of forced pooling, though they are now using a different name (co-tenancy).

“These laws would be violations of private property. But as the old saying goes, neither life nor property are safe while the Legislature is in session.”