CHARLESTON — Gov. Jim Justice wants to let West Virginians know something: Everything's great.
The Republican governor painted an upbeat picture of the state's finances and outlined his legislative agenda Wednesday night in a State of the State speech that featured a rusty hatchet, a tackle box and dozens of reflective safety vests.
He touted positive gains in revenue collections, jobs and personal income, telling the statehouse crowd that “it just gets better and better and better.”
“We have changed ourselves to become the diamond in the rough,” said Justice.
Then, Democrats pounced.
“As much as it pains me to say it, the picture isn't as bright as the governor painted earlier tonight during his State of the State address,” Sen. William Ihlenfeld said at a news conference in which Democrats cited the state's near-last standing in several national economic indicators. “The governor needs to tell us those things and not give us so much spin."
The Democrats noted that the Justice's administration late last year told state agencies to brace for a $100 million budget cut, citing lagging revenues, but then backed off the cuts.
Justice's speech also touched on his “very, very conservative” budget for the new year, in which his administration is estimating $108 million dip in revenue collections. He illustrated his economic plan by holding up a poster of a lighting bolt that showed a zigzag pattern of highs and lows.
He then detailed spending priorities, including $1 million for food pantry programs and a boost to the state's overburdened child welfare agency, while backing a proposal to create a state investment fund and a measure to cover preexisting condition health care costs if the Affordable Care Act is ever struck down.
Republican leaders praised the address. House speaker Roger Hanshaw thanked the governor for “sharing his optimistic vision” for the state. Senate President Mitch Carmichael said the speech “offered an outstanding balance of celebrating the accomplishments of the last four years and projecting a strong vision for West Virginia’s future.”
Justice also employed a series of props and anecdotes, which have become staples of his speeches. Early on, Justice held up a worn ax and a beat-up tackle box, telling a story about how he bought the items from a woman for $100 each and then said “maybe, just maybe I was maybe the catalyst who brought hope.” During a section of the speech in which he spoke about road repairs, he had dozens of orange safety vests handed out to the crowd.
Regarding the state's opioid problem, Justice proposed the idea of creating a narcotics intelligence unit, sternly warning anyone who bring drugs to the state that law enforcement would “bust” them.
The address came one day after Justice's personal attorney said a federal investigation of the governor's private businesses ended with no finding of wrongdoing. Prosecutors in a public corruption unit last year sent three subpoenas to his administration requesting information about his businesses and a resort he owns, fueling months of speculation. The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment Tuesday when asked to confirm the conclusion of the investigation.
Wednesday also marked the official first day of the 2020 legislative session, with the Senate and House of Delegates formally introducing bills and fulfilling ceremonial duties.
Lawmakers have been in Charleston this week for committee meetings, floating several proposals, including measures to change the state's bail system and cut some taxes on manufacturing businesses. There is also a move to bar sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination when it comes to housing, employment and public spaces.
On the House side, Independent Del. S Marshall Wilson introduced a measure to allow gun owners with concealed carry licenses to bring firearms on college campuses. A similar bill last year drew widespread opposition from professors and students before it failed in a Senate committee.
In the Senate, Republican Sen. Charles H. Clements has introduced a block grant bill that would give West Virginia farmers up to $10,000 per year if they commit to growing fruits and vegetables for community health initiatives.