Last week, Jim Justice–the recently-elected Governor of West Virginia–flipped the switch to the light at the top of the Capitol dome in Charleston. While prior governors have lit the Dome’s lantern–a symbolic gesture used to signify when a state of emergency has been declared–Governor Justice’s move is unprecedented.
As the new legislative session began just a few weeks ago, lawmakers arrived in Charleston to begin confronting the daunting and difficult task of somehow plugging the state’s massive $450 million budget deficit. Among all states, West Virginia ranks somewhere around 40th in terms of overall fiscal health. Compounding this problem is that, with a decline in the coal industry and a mass exodus of tax-paying West Virginians delivering a major blow to the state’s ability to raise funds, West Virginia is seeing the lowest amount of tax collections since the recession in 2007-2008.
Just this past summer–amid a 17-day special session–former Governor Earl Ray Tomblin struck a deal with the Republican legislature to approve a 65-cent hike to the state’s cigarette tax and a withdrawal from the Rainy Day Fund. Not only was the deal unpopular in the state with the second-highest tobacco consumption in the country, the deal just barely achieved the constitutionally-required balanced budget. While West Virginia’s state legislature cut what it could, the body more or less kicked the enormous, burdensome fiscal can down the road to land in the lap of Jim Justice.
Prior to entering the 2016 gubernatorial race as a Democrat, Justice had been a lifelong Republican. Growing up in the state, Justice was a collegiate golfer-turned farmer–a seven-time national corn-growing champion–who inherited his father’s coal mines and used his wealth to save the state’s most famous tourist attraction, the Greenbrier Hotel, from bankruptcy. Justice entered the race with little political experience not only as the state’s sole billionaire, but as a newly-minted Democrat.
In West Virginia, a state Donald Trump won by a 42 percent margin, Justice is known for his Trumpesque outsider disposition and business acumen. Justice’s long list of curiosities–including wearing Crocs with his suits (because of toenail-related issues), handing out $100 bills for hole-in-ones, wielding a hatchet during his speeches, and his (occasionally beyond comprehensible) folksy language–have made him one of the most interesting and strange personalities in West Virginia politics.
Source: Charleston Gazette-Mail
Governor Justice effectively took the state’s chief executive office by storm, beating out the State Senate’s top Republican Bill Cole in an election that saw massive GOP victories throughout the country and in West Virginia. Justice struck a chord with voters who were bombarded with road signs across the state featuring a picture of Justice and one simple question: “Tired of Being 50th?“
Now, just months into his first year as the state’s chief executive and facing a dire fiscal predicament, Justice–who repeatedly told voters during his campaign that tax increases would not benefit the state–proposed $450 million in tax increases to close the fiscal gap.
During his first State of the State address–which featured a whiteboard, engineers dressed as construction workers, impressions, and plenty of jokes–Justice addressed the budget crisis, a topic that is no laughing matter to the state’s Republican legislature. The tax increases–the largest in the state’s history–were blasted by GOP members who decried the Governor’s proposal as far too costly for the ailing state. During his address, Justice opened the opportunity for the legislature to propose a different plan that could responsibly address the deficit before the end of the legislative session.
Following his address, the feud between Justice and the state’s Republicans continued to escalate. Justice was repeatedly called to defend his budget plan, taking to social media and television to explain the plan. In retaliation, Justice–never one to miss an opportunity to make a grand political gesture–installed a flat screen TV outside of his office in the Capitol with a countdown clock to the end of the session; a less-than-subtle reminder to Republicans that their budget proposal due date was nearing.
Source: WV Metro News
Two weeks ago, with time to spare in the session, Senate Republicans–headed by Senate President Mitch Carmichael–introduced their counter-plan that strikes some of Justice’s key proposals from the original plan and reduces state spending without levying the burdensome taxes Justice has suggested. The Republicans acknowledged that some of the cuts would have to be made in areas that were previously off-limits; including K-12 education, higher education, and the Department of Health and Human Resources–the state entity that administers Medicaid.
It is for exactly this admission and this GOP-sponsored plan that the red lights on the Capitol dome in Charleston are lit today.
According to Governor Justice, the GOP’s proposal constitutes a “health emergency” and is a sufficient reason to order the state of emergency lights atop the legislative building turned on. Since lighting the dome, citizens and Republican lawmakers have harshly criticized the Governor for making light of a dark gesture.
House of Delegates Speaker Tim Armstead led the chorus of Republicans denouncing the move, citing that the last time the lights were lit was in respect to 23 individuals who died from floods that ravaged the Kanawha Valley. Other lawmakers, such as Senator Carmichael, have demanded an apology from the Governor.
As it stands, the red lights on the Capitol continue to shine, less of a reminder of the non-emergency that is a budget proposal, but rather a reminder that those lights will not be turned off until $350 million in new taxes are given to Governor Justice and his government.