With a hatchet and a tackle box for props, Jim Justice took to the podium on the West Virginia Capitol steps Monday, after being sworn in as the state’s 36th governor.
In the folksy manner that was often seen on the campaign trail, Justice referenced sayings from his father. He joked that the Mountain State is getting a better first lady than it is a governor, and he told a story of how he had purchased the hatchet and tackle box that he proudly displayed from a woman on the side of the road for $100 a piece.
“She was selling her life away, her memories, to just maybe have enough money to have food,” Justice said, as he told the story of his impromptu purchase. “Listen. Things are tough a lot of places. I carry this tackle box and this axe in my car every day, because I want to remember her.”
Addressing a crowd of lawmakers, political officials and various onlookers, the coal mine operator and luxury resort owner laid out a list of policies that he thinks can turn the state around.
Justice suggested the federal government should pay West Virginia for growing trees, that
he could pay for roads by selling a “financial instrument” to a large Wall Street bank, and tentatively committed to raising taxes to fill an estimated $400-million state budget deficit — something he avoided throughout the campaign.
During the campaign, Justice ran more on his down-to-earth messaging than he did on specific policy. For months, he has not committed to seeking cuts or tax increases to balance the state’s troubled budget.
But during his address, Justice said West Virginia needs to find new sources of revenue to ensure that lawmakers don’t have to pull more money from the state’s Rainy Day funds.
“There’s no question there’s waste, and there’s no question that we have to do something about that,” Justice said, “but we have to raise revenue. We have got to find a way to raise revenue. We cannot continue to just kick the can down the road and drain more of the Rainy Day.
“We have a big hole. We have an incredible crisis.”
Justice called for bipartisanship among state lawmakers — something that could be hard to find when it comes to the budget.
Republican Senate President Mitch Carmichael and other members of his party have come out against any new taxes and suggested the budget can be balanced by cuts to agencies and government services alone.
Calling the coal and gas industries the “800-pound gorillas in the room,” Justice also advocated for a tiered severance tax system that lowers taxes when those commodity markets are bad and increases the taxes when markets are doing well.
“When the companies are really hurting, I say we try to help,” Justice said. “But on the other hand, when the companies are really winning, we’ve got to get more, too.”
Justice praised President-elect Donald Trump and suggested that West Virginia’s economy will be revived with the real-estate developer and former reality television star taking over the Oval Office.
“The next four years are going to be really something special,” Justice said. “Whether you like it or don’t like it, Donald Trump is our president. And let me just tell you this: I’m friends with the Trump family. I know ’em; I know them well. And I truly believe that he will provide us with opportunities in West Virginia, as well.”
Justice suggested that he would lobby Trump and federal lawmakers to get some type of “environmental subsidy” for trees and hardwood manufacturing in West Virginia.
Referring to unsubstantiated research that has been pushed by the West Virginia Coal Association, Justice suggested that growing and harvesting trees in West Virginia has allowed the state to pull more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than it is emitting.
“I’m a farmer. I know something about this stuff,” Justice said.
“What our trees are doing for this world is unbelievable,” he added as the crowd applauded.
Scientists who study global warming and the world’s carbon cycle have provided evidence showing that trees in West Virginia don’t offset the carbon released from the state’s power plants.
At different points, Justice referenced problems with road funding, pay for public school teachers and efforts to fight the state’s drug addiction epidemic, which he said is “cannibalizing” West Virginia.
But while Justice recognized those problems — as have many state lawmakers — his address was short on specifics for how to pay for teacher raises, better road financing and additional drug treatment efforts.
To fund road repairs, Justice suggested he would package state money into some type of bond or other financing tool and “sell it to Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan or whoever it may be.”
The businessman-turned-politician talked about a similar plan during the campaign, but never explained how the money would be leveraged or what it would cost the state in the future.
Justice told people Monday that his plan would allow the state to start building roads immediately.
“See, I know this stuff,” he said.
During his discussion of teacher raises, Justice took a shot at the state’s grading system for public schools, called for cuts to “unnecessary agencies” and talked about getting “the bureaucrats out of the way.”
“We’ve got to listen to people that are on the ground, instead of trying to administer from Charleston when we don’t have a clue what is going on,” Justice said.
The governor also addressed the large number of pending conflicts that exist between his businesses and his new office, including his casino, resorts and coal mines that either benefit or are regulated by the state government.
“I want absolutely nothing. Nothing,” Justice said. “I don’t want a thing for me or my family in any way. All I want is goodness for this incredible state and its incredible people.”
He then called for an expansion in tourism advertising, which Justice’s Greenbrier resort has been a primary recipient of.
Reiterating one of his campaign slogans, Justice said he is going to lift West Virginia out of last place.
“You realize we are at the bad end of a lot of jokes, and we’ve been that for evermore,” Justice said. “I don’t like it. I don’t like the fact that we’re 50th in everything, coming or going.”
Reach Andrew Brown at email@example.com, 304-348-4814 or follow @Andy_Ed_Brown on Twitter.