Justice Looks Back at ‘Hard’ 2020, Expresses Optimism for 2021
Praises West Virginians For Resilience
CHARLESTON — The last 10 out of 12 months of 2020 were some of the most challenging of Jim Justice’s tenure as Governor of West Virginia. But the longtime businessman sees good things in West Virginia’s future, both for 2021 and beyond.
While there have been many stormy seas since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in West Virginia in March — more than 1,300 deaths, a shutdown of the economy for more than a month, many residents still unemployed, and state and local health officials and members of the West Virginia National Guard working long hours — Justice praised West Virginians for their resilience in 2020.
“I want all West Virginians to know just how proud I am of all them,” Justice said. “When it really boils down to it, they’ve done a hell of a job. That’s all there is to it.”
For Justice, 2020 started pretty well. By March, the legislative session wrapped up and Justice got most of his priorities through the budgetary process. The Legislature adopted a compromise general revenue budget for fiscal year 2021 starting July 1, totaling $4.574 billion.
The budget included $16.9 million for the new tiered foster care system in House Bill 4092 to increase reimbursement rates for foster and kinship families, $19 million to end the intellectual and developmentally disabled (I/DD) waiver waitlist, and also included funding for Justice’s Jobs and Hope program, the Communities in Schools program, and a second West Virginia National Guard Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy in Montgomery.
But by the second week of March as COVID-19 started to make its way across the nation. The state’s 55 schools shut down, along with state girls and boys high school basketball tournaments, even before the first confirmed case was found in West Virginia.
By the third week of March, Justice declared a state of emergency, ordered closures and limitations on certain businesses, and called for long-term care facilities to limit visitation. The week after that, Justice issued a stay-at-home order and closed all but essential businesses.
Often criticized for not living in Charleston and being absent from his office in the State Capitol Building, Justice has spent nearly every other day giving livestreamed updates on the latest COVID-19 news and information, taking questions from the press, and providing leadership in his folksy way. Every briefing starts with the reading of the most recent deaths.
“A lot of these people you know who passed away,” Justice said. “And then you talk to the kids about their grandmas and granddads who passed away … it weighs on you. I’d say it makes your hair white, but mine’s been white a long time.”
Justice said the past 10 months have been a trying time for the state and for his administration as it tried to make the best decisions during the pandemic with sometimes little information on the best course of action. While cases in the state have risen dramatically the past two months along with the rest of the nation, Justice believes he made the decisions early on that kept the state from early spikes of the virus.
“No one can ever know what we have to deal with and what we got to go through,” Justice said. “I will be the first to say it’s been really hard and it’s been lonely a lot of times, because you’ve got to make decisions that are tough. But it’s been an honor and it’s been rewarding. We’ve made the right decisions and we’ve really weathered the storm that a lot of people thought it was impossible for us to weather.”
COVID-19 will not disappear as 2020 fades into the rear-view mirror, but Justice believes the state is on a glide path towards controlling the virus in the early months of 2021 as more vaccine doses become available and new vaccines get approved.
“I’m going to be cautiously optimistic. I want to be that always,” Justice said. “We’ve still got a ways to go, but it will pass because just like in so many different things, when Americans or West Virginians have stood up, they make bad things go away. So, we’re on the glide path to begin to get this bad thing to go.”
Besides still battling COVID-19 in West Virginia, Justice plans to focus on economic issues in 2021. Broadband expansion will receive greater attention in order to improve education, increase telehealth, and bring in new businesses, especially businesses that allow their employees to work from home.
“If we want to continue to diversify across our state, our next highway has got to be broadband,” Justice said. “We’ve got to have broadband everywhere. It takes real commitment and real energy, but I’m real hopeful that as we go forward with the session coming up and everything, I think West Virginia is positioned now to do so much good.”
Justice also wants to take a crack at phasing out the personal income tax. According to the Tax Foundation, seven states levy no individual income tax, including fellow energy states Texas, Alaska, and Wyoming. Justice wouldn’t release any details on how a phase out of one of the taxes that provides the most tax revenue to the state would work, but he said it would instantly make West Virginia more appealing for economic development.
“I’m working like a dog on it as we speak,” Justice said. “We don’t want to end up (as one of) the two states left in the nation that still have a state income tax. West Virginia is presenting itself now in a different light.”
Justice was able to win a second term as governor in November. With four more years, Justice said he sees great things in West Virginia’s future, not just for 2021 or the next four years, but longer.
“West Virginia will end up the place where all the things – the goodness – that other states had that we wanted and we didn’t have, we’ll have,” Justice said. “And hopefully a lot of their badness, we won’t have. And absolutely we’ll be able to have that and live in paradise, because every day you look outside, that’s what it is. West Virginia, you are right on the cusp of taking off like you can’t imagine.”