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Despite party switch, WV GOP to oppose Justice’s road bond referendum

Gazette-Mail file photo

Despite Gov. Jim Justice’s recent flip to the Republican party, the state GOP executive committee voted to oppose Justice’s road bond referendum.

The party met in Princeton on Saturday and passed a resolution to oppose the referendum for a constitutional amendment in a nearly-unanimous voice vote, according to several people who attended.

The resolution calls for countering Justice’s proposal, stating it would permit the borrowing of billions of dollars and interest payments for up to 25 years and lead to gasoline tax hikes or DMV and toll fee increases.

If the Oct. 7 referendum were to pass, the state could sell up to $1.6 billion in road bonds paid for via a hike in the gas tax, increase in sales tax on motor vehicles and higher DMV fees. The legislature passed these proposals during the special legislative session.

Justice said in July because the taxes and fee increases are already in effect to pay for them, he’s confident voters will approve allowing the state to issue the bonds.

Most those in attendance at the GOP event said no more than one or two voted to support the referendum.

Rob Cornelius, a GOP operative and Wood County’s Republican party chairman, drafted the resolution. He said Tuesday the bond proposal violates several aspects of the party’s platform, specifically the tax and fee increases. Moreover, he said given the state’s recent budgetary woes, it is in no place to be borrowing any more money.

“The biggest one is, we don’t want more debt, and the state’s going to borrow at least $1.6 billion,” he said. “I don’t know if you’ve looked at the state budget, but this is not a state that should be borrowing a billion dollars for anything, are you kidding me?”

Conrad Lucas, state GOP chairman, said the party platform does the job of explaining the opposition in itself.

“If, as a practical effect, this could lead to higher taxes or this could lead to larger budgetary problems for the state, it’s very understandable why conservative Republicans would oppose it,” he said. “If the governor’s office has clarifying points on that, or they view the resolution as wrong, then we look forward to hearing their positions.”

Butch Antolini, Justice’s communications director, did not respond to a comment request for this report.

The chairman of the House Roads and Transportation Committee, Marty Gearheart, has issued news releases in the past calling on Justice to promise that no money raised from the recent tax and fee hikes will be used for anything but the road bonds.

Though Gearheart opposes the referendum, he said Tuesday though he’s heard what he wants from administration members, but he needs Justice to personally and publicly say as much if he’s to get on board with it. Also, he said the bond should have been voted on before its required revenue boosts.

“Secondarily, I just do not believe that we don’t need to go into debt on that level,” he said. “I really think we took the cart before the horse by passing the tax prior to the bond being considered.”

After this story was originally published, Justice issued a news release, saying that the referendum should not be a partisan issue, and that all the funding to cover the bonds has already been established by the legislature.

“The Road Bond Referendum is not going to raise your taxes at all -- zero,” the release states. “What we are really voting for on Oct. 7 is whether or not we want to create tens of thousands of good paying jobs and launch our state into an economic recovery, and put us on a pathway to prosperity, that will be remembered forevermore.”

Though he won the 2016 election as a Democrat, Justice announced Aug. 3 he was converting to the Republican party.

Beyond the resolution itself, Cornelius said Saturday’s event marked the first time the party discussed Justice’s switch to the GOP, with raucous results.

“It was announced as part of the political update that West Virginia had a Republican governor, and I’ll tell you right now, ask anyone who was there, the room was filled with laughter and boos,” he said. “Nobody in that room thought this was great. Nobody reacted positively.”

Since his party switch, Justice has fired his chief of staff and fielded a slew of resignation letters from aides and a division commissioner.

Reach Jake Zuckerman at, 304-348-4814 or follow @jake_zuckerman on Twitter.

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