Northern Panhandle Lawmakers Worry Governor Too Optimistic About State’s Finances

WHEELING — After Gov. Jim Justice unveiled his plans for 2019 on Wednesday, several lawmakers from the Northern Panhandle expressed doubt that the Mountain State can afford to fund his proposals.

Delegate Erikka Storch said West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice gave no hints about what the next hour might bring as she stood with him outside the House chamber Wednesday evening. Storch, R-Ohio, was selected by House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, to escort Justice down the aisle to the podium for the annual State of the State address to House and Senate members.

“I asked him if he was going to start with a joke,” Storch said. “I asked him what he was going to talk about. … He gave no advance information.”

Storch is a member of the House Finance Committee. She said while Justice made some “positive comments” about the state’s current budget surpluses, she also calculated the sum of the initiatives he proposed to be more than what can be covered by the surpluses. Among Justice’s proposals was the elimination of taxes on Social Security and business inventory and machinery in the state.

Storch said she was looking forward to today, when Justice’s proposed budget for next year is presented.

“There going to be money for some of it,” she said of Justice’s ideas. “He is just going to have to set his priorities for the new money.

“He has the ability to dedicate money to the projects he most wants, while the Legislature has the ability to make modifications. Then he can line item veto what we have changed.”

Storch said she was “cautiously optimistic” about Justice’s plan to use unallocated money from the road bond issue passed last year to repair decaying secondary roads in the state. His proposal comes as bids for a $200 million project to replace bridges along Interstate 70 exceeded expectations, and must be rebid.

“We have to have the money for I-70, and the money for secondary roads,” Storch said.

Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, was also listening to the governor’s words about road repairs.

“I can’t believe Governor Justice touted his ‘Roads to Prosperity’ project as a success,” Fluharty said. “He needs to visit the Northern Panhandle and see the catastrophic conditions of our infrastructure. If we don’t address the situation now I fear we are putting lives at risk.

“Gov. Justice sounded like someone who just announced his re-election campaign two days ago,” Fluharty said. “He promised the world to everyone with little evidence on how those promises will be fulfilled or paid for.”

Delegate Randy Swartzmiller, D-Hancock, said he found the speech “hard to follow,” but acknowledged there was much in the speech that was positive.

“He talked about having a strong education agenda, and that’s good,” Swartzmiller said. “We need to make sure we are making the right investments for our future and our kids. I was also pleasantly surprised that he wanted to eliminate the tax on Social Security. I was very happy about that.

“Overall, we have to get the bills up and see the details and the fiscal notes. I want to work with the governor, and I want to give everything a fair look and a fair shot.”

Senate Majority Whip Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, said he also liked Justice’s ideas for eliminating the Social Security tax and for finding a way to fund secondary road repairs. These proposals need to be further investigated to see if they are the best way to proceed, he said.

But as vice chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Weld was happy Justice wants to create an intermediate court of appeals in West Virginia.

“The Senate has had a bill out to do the same, but it was not taken up by the House,” Weld said. “I want to see how the governor’s legislation will compare to the legislation we did last year. Does it need improvements? Are there things we have to work on?”

Sen. William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, said he liked a lot of what he heard in the speech.

“We will have to see the details of what he outlined, including the specifics we haven’t seen yet,” Ihlenfeld said. “I have been a proponent of the repeal of the Social Security tax. To hear him be an advocate for that was pleasing.”

He said he also liked that Justice wanted to give teachers another 5 percent raise this year, and that he wants to take up the issue of teachers being able to bank their sick days.

A former U.S. attorney, Ihlenfeld said he also liked Justice’s idea to provide retraining opportunities for those convicted of opioid-related crimes so that they can land 21st century jobs.

“I agree with the governor that the best antidote for the opioid problem in the state is someone getting up at 6 a.m. and going to work,” Ihlenfeld said. “Retraining them also will help the economy at the same time.”

Delegate Joe Canestraro, D-Marshall, said while Justice “didn’t give a lot of details,” he was glad Justice is paying attention to the state of secondary roads in the state.

“I will be more excited if it actually happens,” he said. “He had a lot of great ideas, but I wonder how he will pay for it all. Will the money continue to be there? Six months of surpluses doesn’t mean solvency. We have to make sure we have the money to do everything he wants to do.”

Delegate Patrick McGeehan, R-Hancock, said he is glad the governor is optimistic about the state’s finances.

“The promises that were outlined, however, total well over $300 million in additional spending,” he said. “I’m not sure how this can be prudent, much less realistic, as the current budget surplus is simply unsustainable in the long run.”

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