After Bout With COVID, Justice Delivers Belated State of the State Address
CHARLESTON — With the 60-day legislative session one-quarter of the way through, Gov. Jim Justice presented his State of the State address in person Thursday evening after canceling the traditional address due to testing positive for COVID-19 more than 15 days ago.
Justice, taking his place at the podium in the House of Delegates chamber, received a standing ovation from lawmakers, justices of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, Board of Public Works members, cabinet officials, lobbyists, and other invited guests.
“Whether at times I was 15 minutes late or 20 minutes late or sometimes even later than that, I’ve never been 15 days late,” Justice joked. “I’m extremely grateful you’re allowing me to come late.”
The annual State of the State address is normally delivered to lawmakers the evening of the first day of the session, which was Jan. 12.
That all changed when Justice announced his COVID-19 infection the night of Jan. 11.
The Governor’s Office delivered to lawmakers written remarks as required by the state Constitution, as well as the budget bill for the upcoming fiscal year starting in July. And economic development announcements that were to be made more than two weeks ago were made without him.
Nucor, a North Carolina-based steel manufacturer, revealed plans to build a new electric arc furnace and steel mill in Mason County. The company is also considering a new transloading facility in Weirton. The project would create as many as 1,000 new construction jobs over two years, with 800 full-time jobs once the mill is completed, and result in a $2.7 billion investment.
“Believe it or not, it’s the largest investment, hands down, that has ever come to West Virginia history,” Justice said. “But it’s also the biggest investment Nucor has ever made.”
West Virginia University Health System (WVU Medicine) will expand on a partnership with Owens & Minor Inc. to launch a health care products preparedness center in Morgantown. And Canada-based GreenPower Motor Company Inc. entered into an agreement with the state to lease or purchase a 9.5-acre manufacturing facility in South Charleston to make electric school buses.
“I promised you a rocket ship ride, did I not?” Justice said. “Now it is absolutely real. This state is setting record growth, record after record.”
Justice said these economic development announcements would have been unthinkable prior to taking office in 2017. But with efforts to put forth a different image of the state, diversifying the state’s economy, cutting spending without tax increases, and investing in roads and tourism, the state will see more economic development announcements in the near future.
Justice said he is directing his economic development team to locate more sites for economic development and get the sites shovel-ready. In 2021 alone, Justice said more than $1.1 billion was invested in the state by 39 different companies, resulting in 36,000 jobs.
West Virginia’s bond ratings remain high. The state continues to pay its pension obligations. Surplus tax revenue — driven this year by federal COVID-19 relief dollars and higher energy prices – are more than $400 million with the current fiscal year more than halfway done.
West Virginia’s unemployment rate, the rate of West Virginians either working or actively looking for work, was 3.7% last month — the third straight month the state has broken record lows. But the state’s labor force participation rate — taking into account those no longer looking for work — remains the lowest in the nation. Justice proposed the Job Jumpstart Program, which would provide $1,500 one-time payments for West Virginians who re-enter the workforce for at least eight weeks.
Justice’s budget bill for the general revenue budget for fiscal year 2023 remains a flat spending budget in line with previous years, coming in at $4.645 billion — a 1.4% increase from a revised revenue estimate of $4.579 billion for the current fiscal year ending in June.
There are only two expenses contemplated in this year’s budget bill: a proposed 5% pay raise for state employees and educators costing $114 million; and $41 million for required inmate medical care due to court mandates and healthcare cost inflation. Justice also proposed a bill to provide a 2.5% one-time bonus for state employees paid for with surplus tax dollars, though no bill has been introduced.
Justice also proposed covering the costs of college classes for high school students, requiring middle and high schools teach computer coding and information technology, and increasing penalties for school staff who abuse students. He called for a new state lab for all state agencies and the Department of Agriculture to share.
Justice called for locality pay to help recruit and retain West Virginia State Police troopers. He called for the state’s Department of Homeland Security to work on ways to stem the flow of fentanyl into the state. Justice also said he is working with Toyota to develop a more efficient process for state agencies to make purchases.
Justice expressed support for tax credits for homebuilders to meet the demand of new residents and remote workers. He also encouraged lawmakers to help him find money to complete the Beckley veteran’s home. Justice wants to see Roads to Prosperity projects completed, including Corridor H and interstate projects in Wheeling.
Justice addressed his COVID-19 infection. Justice credited his quick recovery to being fully vaccinated and boosted. Only 55.8% of the state’s eligible population is fully vaccinated and only 39.8% is boosted. A record 1,080 West Virginians were in the hospital with COVID as of Thursday, as the milder, yet more virulent, omicron variant wreaks havoc.
Justice asked for a silent moment of prayer for the 5,697 residents who have died from COVID in nearly two years since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Justice also praised the work of the West Virginia National Guard, whose members are helping staff hospitals during the surge of the omicron variant.
“It’s been two years. The pandemic’s been tough and you know the toll that it has taken on every single last one of us,” Justice said. “I know in my heart we’re going to get through this. We still need to all stay together and pull the rope together as much as we have.”
In closing, Justice brought out his English bulldog Babydog, lifting her up on the podium and at one point turning the dog around and delivering a message to the state’s detractors, including actress and singer Bette Midler, who disparaged the state recently.
“Too many people doubted us,” Justice said. “They never believed in West Virginia that we could do it. They never believed that Nucor or GreenPower or Owens and Minor — they never believed they’d be here. They told every bad joke in the world about us. And so from that standpoint, Babydog tells Bette Midler and all those out there to kiss her heiny.”
Prior to the governor’s speech, the House of Delegates paid tribute to former Raleigh County Democratic House member, former House Speaker, and former cabinet secretary for the Department of Revenue Bob Kiss, who died in November after battling cancer. He was 63.