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Statehouse Beat: Justice address a refreshing change

Statehouse Beat: Justice Address A Refreshing Change

SAM OWENS | Gazette-Mail Gov. Jim Justice gives his first State of the State address on Wednesday,

First, let us acknowledge the 800-pound gorilla in the room: Gov. Jim Justice s State of the State address was a refreshing change of pace, and also was a hoot and a half. Undoubtedly, that was the first State of the State address to reference both an 18-carat dog mess and Frankenstein, not to mention the speaker s own flop sweat and bad knees. I ve often said that C-SPAN s rebroadcasts of State of the State addresses from around the country are watchable only by hard-core political junkies, insomniacs and masochists. However, it s not hard to imagine viewers somewhere in America flipping channels, coming upon Justice s address, and finding themselves enthralled by this small-state governor s homespun, extemporaneous presentation.

Traditionally, the real audience for State of State addresses is the Legislature, but Justice s address obviously was directed at what Oshel Craigo calls the people in the little white houses. Justice realizes he needs to use his bully pulpit if he wants to have any hope of convincing Grover-Norquist-pledge-signing legislators to pass any of his tax increases, and he directly addressed the public at the end of the speech, asking them to get their in-laws, outlaws and neighbors to call their legislators in support of his budget plan. In his own down-home, straight talk way, I think Justice made a strong argument that the state can t get through the budget crisis, let alone ever thrive, on spending cuts alone.

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Last week, I suggested that if I were Justice, I would submit a scorched-earth budget bill proposing to make up the $500 million budget shortfall entirely through cuts, to put the onus squarely on the Legislature. In a way, he did that, submitting an alternative budget that closes the shortfall by literally closing great portions of state government, including most state colleges and universities, essentially giving pro-budget cut legislators an a la carte menu to pick their poison. For all the talk about right-sizing state government, the Legislature has found it awful to pull the trigger on any cuts of any consequence. Remember the budget impasse last year when legislators couldn t come up with $90 million of additional cuts to avoid raising the tobacco tax?

Assuming you don t want to gut public education ($1.9 billion) and you want to keep funding Medicaid ($900 million), which not only provides health care for some of our most vulnerable citizens but also draws down a nearly $3-to-$1 federal match, and you want to continue to keep bad guys in prisons and regional jails, continue to have State Police patrolling our highways, and continue to have National Guard and Homeland Security on call in the event of natural or man-made disasters ($350 million), you basically have about $850 million of general revenue budget left from which to make $500 million of cuts. Or as Justice said of cutting the way out of the deficit, I can t get you there.

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As the Legislature discovered last year, every line-item in the budget has a constituency, and Justice s comparatively modest proposal of roughly 0.5 percent of budget cuts (compared to 15 percent cuts enacted by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin during his term) are already generating uproar. The aftermath of Justice s proposal to cut $26.6 million from what currently is a $4.1 billion general revenue budget saw multiple articles raising myriad concerns about the harm the proposed cuts would cause.

The cynic in me might think that the programs targeted for cuts were specifically selected to generate maximum uproar, involving entities that many West Virginians hold dear, including Marshall and West Virginia universities, West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and the Culture and History fund that supports fairs and festivals, symphonies and theater arts, historic preservation, and museums around the state. In fact, if you told me to go through the budget, and come up with reductions that would cause the maximum amount of uproar per dollar of cuts, I m not sure I could top what Justice and company have proposed. The proposed Educational Broadcasting Authority cuts are particularly interesting. The elimination of general revenue funding, $4.6 million, is not quite half of EBA s total annual budget. However, almost all of the $4.6 million (save a $300,000 grant for Mountain Stage) is for personnel costs (payroll and benefits). Theoretically, there would still be special revenue funds to maintain the studios, transmission towers, and nuts and bolts to put WVPB on the air, with no staff to operate them.

The cynic in me might also say the stage is set for another budget impasse, and another countdown to a government shutdown this June.

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First major management change by new Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy: John Doyle, longtime deputy secretary and, before that, longtime delegate from Jefferson County, who did a lot of work on the national Streamlined Sales Tax project, was let go Friday.

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Charlie Monte Verde, senior government affairs specialist with Amtrak, was at the Capitol last week doing some groundwork for pending legislation for West Virginia to help form an interstate compact to expand Amtrak Cardinal operations from three days a week to daily service.

(And, yes, he rode the old redbird from Chicago to get here.)

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Finally, one of the more unexpected elements of Justice s address was what seemed to be his call for a dress code for Department of Environmental Protection inspectors, describing inspectors as being unshaven, wearing T-shirts and old pairs of jeans.

Listen, I think they ought to look like something, and they will look like something, or we ll have them out tending to Grizzly Adams, Justice said. I probably paid more heed to those comments than I normally would have, since it just happens that the new administration has also raised issues about what it considers the less-than-stellar appearance of some members of the press corps who cover Justice. Certainly, I m in no position to make judgments on fashion or appearance. If Penney s ever stops selling Dockers and oxford shirts, I ll be clueless about where to buy work clothes.

The governor didn t strike me as someone who would be all that concerned with appearance or attire, but upon further consideration, I guess ownership of an upscale resort would make one acutely aware of such things.

Reach Phil Kabler at [email protected], 304 348-1220, or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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