Barbs Fly as Governor, Senate Leaders Squabble

Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, is calling for Gov. Jim Justice to resign his position and tend to his businesses.

CHARLESTON — The relationship between Gov. Jim Justice and Republican state senators took a new turn Monday as Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, called on the governor to resign.

“For months, everyone has been talking about it, but now I am clearly and loudly saying it: Jim Justice is an embarrassment to our state and should resign and try to attend to his family business obligations,” Blair said Monday.

Justice pushed back against Blair’s comments, as well as recent comments by Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, responding to criticisms by Justice over the handling of the recent special session on education reform.

“I think (Carmichael and Blair) dug themselves a hole, and I’m not going to help them dig,” Justice said during a press conference Monday afternoon. “They dug themselves a hole that the people of West Virginia don’t like and now they maybe want to beat on me.”

Blair, speaking by phone Monday morning, said he plans to join the Republican executive committees in Kanawha and Harrison counties and the West Virginia Federation of College Republicans in introducing a resolution of no confidence in the governor in the state Senate the next time the body meets.

“If he thinks he’s going to get away with saying the Legislature does nothing, he’s got another thing coming,” Blair said.

Justice called Blair’s call for resignation and no confidence resolution “ridiculous.”

“Craig is trying to be a bully,” Justice said.

The catalyst for Blair breaking ranks with the governor stems back to the vote June 3 for Senate Bill 1039, the Student Success Act, and a separate bill for education savings accounts. Justice met with both the Republican and Democratic Senate caucuses, raising concerns about the scope of the bill.

Justice was also critical of anti-strike provisions in the Student Success Act, including canceling extracurricular activities during a work stoppage. Justice, a high school basketball coach at Greenbrier East High School, told lawmakers believes that canceling games or practices when teachers strike is wrong.

“He cares more about his basketball team than he does about the people of West Virginia,” Blair said. “I’ve reached my breaking point.”

“Why would we be hitting back at the unions at the sacrifice of our kids,” Justice said.

Last week, Justice criticized Carmichael at a campaign town hall event near Parkersburg for pushing a bill with similarities to Senate Bill 451, education omnibus bill that died in the House of Delegates during the 2019 legislative session over disagreements between the two bodies over charter schools and education savings accounts. The Justice campaign also chose not to invite Carmichael as a special guest to a June 20 fundraiser featuring Donald Trump Jr.

Responding Thursday, Carmichael said he wouldn’t want to be part of any effort to reelect Justice, calling the governor’s attack on senate Republicans an “embarrassment” and calling justice an absentee leader. In an emailed statement Friday, Carmichael brought up Justice’s legal battles in federal court over his various companies’ debts, fines, and penalties.

“Perhaps, the Governors inconsistent positions on education and other matters can be laid at the feet of his constant legal troubles with unpaid bills, worker safety violations, and delinquent taxes,” Carmichael said. “The worry and stress about these conflicts possibly contributes to his poor judgment and leads him to lash out at policies that represent traditional conservative values. His personal issues have certainly been an embarrassment to our state.”

“All I did was not invite somebody to my fundraiser,” Justice said. “I haven’t criticized these people in any way, nor will I. The Republicans need to come together, but you need me to lead. If the Republicans are being led off a cliff that’s going to cause damage to them and I know it, then you need me to lead.”

Justice called the special session after his 5 percent pay raise for teachers and school service personnel, proposed during a press conference in October, failed in the Senate. The Senate incorporated the pay raise into SB 451, which included charters and education savings accounts. The House rejected ESA’s and limited charters to a two-school pilot. When the Senate rejected those changes, the bill died in the House.

Justice said that senate Republican leaders were fine with the pay raise prior to the October 2018 press conference where Justice first announced the proposal, but then incorporated the raise into their massive education omnibus bill in January without telling the governor. Justice said the same thing happened with the new Student Success Act which but expands charters, and ESA bill, which doesn’t cap the number of accounts.

“President Carmichael told me point blank ‘we are not going to run education savings accounts,'” Justice said. “What did they do? They ran education savings accounts.”

The House, when it meets Monday, will break into four select committees to review smaller bills, as well as the two bills the Senate sent over last Monday.

“I call upon the governor to join the effort to be first in education,” Carmichael said. “I believe our West Virginia students are as smart, gifted, and blessed as any in America. We need a governor with the conviction and strength to pursue the right course, not one that seeks to remain stuck in 50th with a system that is failing our students because it is comfortable.”

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