Gov. Jim Justice says he and his staff will be waiting for lawmakers in his “war room”—a conference room in the Governor’s Office—every morning until the end of the legislative session to work on a budget compromise.
Justice held the first of those meetings Wednesday, which was attended by six members of the Democratic caucus from both the House and Senate.
Justice was disappointed in the lack of Republican willingness to negotiate, but Republican leaders say the governor’s budget plans so far this session haven’t been clear.
“There isn’t necessarily a plan as a thought process for the week,” Senate President Mitch Carmichael said. “He continues to change it and that’s his prerogative, but that’s not helpful to the process.”
Justice has presented lawmakers with essentially three budget plans so far this session.
In his State of the State Address, he presented a budget bill that relied on $450 million in tax increases and $26.6 million in cuts to government to balance the 2018 budget. Just days later, he adjusted that plan, asking for smaller tax increases and $50 million in cuts.
Last week, Justice sent House Speaker Tim Armstead and Senate President Mitch Carmichael a letter adjusting his budget proposal once again and restoring funding to some previously cut government programs.
Legislative leaders have asked for more clarity from Justice, which the governor gave them in the form of a letter Tuesday.
Still, Justice has continued to criticize Republican lawmakers for not presenting a budget during one of the toughest economic times in the state’s history.
Typically, a budget is not approved until an extended budget session after the regular session work is complete, but during a press conference releasing their 2018 budget framework last week, Carmichael and House Speaker Tim Armstead assured the public they would have a budget passed by the 60th day of the regular session, April 8.
That budget, according to the released framework, will include $50 million in cuts to three large areas of state government: higher education, public education and Medicaid. The proposal, Justice has said, will be catastrophic for the state.
“Everyone seems to recognize that there is going to be pain felt by either deep and severe budgetary cuts or some miniscule tax increases upon the consumers of West Virginia,” House Minority Leader Tim Miley said. “So, the question is where do you feel the least amount of pain as a citizen of West Virginia?”
Miley believes West Virginians would feel the least pain under the just plan to increase the sales tax, a business tax, taxes on the wealthy, and reduce government spending by $50 million, but Carmichael has called it the largest tax increase in the state’s history, something he says West Virginians cannot endure in the current economic climate.
“When people are out there, not knowing what to expect, not knowing what we’re going to do,” Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso said, “and the chances of us not having a budget at the end of this session, we should be more diligent to make things happen, to make it work and to provide a legitimate working budget that [doesn’t] hurt the people out there.”
Both Prezioso and Miley said they’ll send representatives of their caucus to meet with the governor or his staff every morning until the end of the session.
Carmichael said Wednesday he will not turn down a meeting with the governor.
“He has an open door to my office as well and I look forward to working with him,” he said.