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Statehouse Beat: Justice party switch one for the ages

Of all the “WTF” moments in state politics, this may be the WTF-iest.

Granted, Gov. Jim Justice is not a career politician, and political labels mean little to him. He was a Republican for much of his adult life, before changing parties in 2015 because it provided the clearest path to the Governor’s Mansion (which he rarely uses).

His 2017 legislative agenda, however, was clearly and unabashedly Democratic: He proposed increased funding for public education, higher education, infrastructure and public services, to be paid for through a series of tax increases.

To distill Justice’s political philosophy to a single sentence, it might well be, “To help as many people as possible, and to hurt no one.”

In announcing his return to the Republican Party, Justice said the Democrats “walked away from me” during budget negotiations — but news flash, Democrats are the minority in both houses.

It’s not unlike a coach complaining that he lost the game because the second string didn’t score enough points. If the starters had done their job, the backups wouldn’t have mattered.

House Republicans were adamant and steadfast in opposing tax hikes throughout the session, while Senate Republicans concocted a dubious plan to raise sales taxes and cut income taxes, a plan that Justice signed onto. It would have balanced the budget for one year — but would have resulted in even more massive budget deficits in the out years. Democrats in both houses rightfully balked at that proposal’s shift of tax burden from the wealthy to lower and middle class families.

Ultimately, after a 21-day trudge through a second consecutive budget impasse, the Legislature passed a budget that cut spending by about $125 million — less than the nearly $350 million of cuts Republican leadership originally proposed. Justice, sounding ever so much like a Democrat, called it a “travesty,” and let it become law without his signature.

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So what is Justice’s strategy?

It’s a reasonable observation to say that Justice feuded louder and longer with Republicans than Democrats during the legislative session and budget impasse.

The idea that House Democrats walked away from a done deal on the budget is a bit of revisionist history.

It’s unlikely to think that legislative leadership will now fall in line with Justice simply because he has an R after his name instead of a D, and it seems equally unlikely that Justice will embrace the Republican agenda to the extent it would mean cutting state programs and services; i.e., hurting average West Virginians.

As Justice said Friday, he doesn’t plan to change a thing other than his party affiliation when it comes to the governor’s office: “Jim is still going to be Jim.”

Initial response from Republican leaders to the marriage of inconvenience was decidedly lukewarm. Some 24 hours after Justice’s announcement, the state Republican Party website still had not been scrubbed of multiple articles attacking Justice. (Perhaps because party Chairman Conrad Lucas was honeymooning in Paris, and either could not access the web page, or had better things to do.)

One could argue it’s all an attempt by Justice to ingratiate himself to President Donald Trump, and to ride Trump’s still-high popularity in West Virginia.

If that’s the case, the timing could not be more curious, on a day when Trump’s national approval ratings cratered to their lowest levels yet, on a day when polling showed Trump going underwater for the first time with white males and non-college educated adults — two pillars of his support. It was also the day that news broke that special counsel Robert Mueller has impaneled a grand jury into the Russia probe.

(Justice’s comments in Huntington to the effect that we should forget about the Russia investigation because the stock market is at 22,000 was a distasteful false equivalency: “Yes, my son robs banks, but look at all the nice stuff we have.”)

One theory is that Justice believes if he can pal up to Trump, Trump will reward the state, perhaps with mandates on coal or major infrastructure projects. Of course, that assumes Trump isn’t spending most of the foreseeable future trying to stay one step ahead of impeachment or indictment, or that his seemingly total lack of ability to get any major legislation or policy passed is suddenly corrected.

The other question is how long Trump’s 60 percent approval rating among West Virginians will hold steady, even as he falls nationally. West Virginians tend to be like Edith Bunker on “All in the Family.” She was always the last person in the room to get the joke or grasp the issue at hand, but once she got it, her moral compass was usually unerringly accurate.

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Without going into the dark recesses of the rumor mill — i.e., that both Justice and Trump have made considerable profits in business dealings with Russian oligarchs — there’s one theory that seems to make more sense than others, or doesn’t seem completely irrational: The Oct. 7 road bond referendum.

Following his legislative setbacks, Justice is putting all his chips in on passage of the Roads to Prosperity 2017 amendment to the state constitution. If approved, it would provide for the issuance of $1.6 billion of road bonds, the key component of his $2.8 billion road building initiative.

Justice has said, using his typical hyperbole, that it will be the biggest, boldest initiative ever in state history, and will “absolutely turn the state around.”

Conversely, he has said that if it fails, the state is dead. “If it fails, this state is history,” Justice has said. “That’s all there is to it.”

Rumblings are that some Republican statewide elected officials are planning to oppose the road bond referendum. Meanwhile, some Republicans are already trying to make a claim that even though the funding to underwrite the bonds has already been enacted, in the form of gas tax hikes and increased DMV fees that went into effect July 1, additional tax hikes will follow if the referendum is approved.

Again, if the referendum is framed as a question of raising taxes as opposed to a question of whether to build and rehab state highways, it is doomed.

Perhaps Justice figures that, with the governor as a Republican, members of the GOP can’t go full-bore against the road bond referendum.

However, conversely, Justice will probably need county commissioners, mayors and legislators to get on board to convince their constituents that Justice’s road-building initiative is good policy. Some of that needed support will have to come from Democrats, some of whom may still be stinging from Justice’s change of party.

It’s certainly hard to imagine that Justice could pick up the phone and ask Sen. Joe Manchin to campaign for the road bonds after what transpired.

Perhaps Justice could get his friend Donald to come out and campaign, since his own infrastructure initiative seems to be stuck in neutral.

Ultimately, the impact of Justice’s change of party affiliation probably will not be worthy of all the buzz it generated over the past few days.

If nothing else, it was amusing to watch Republicans disavow attacks they had made on Justice, some barely hours old when he announced his switch, while Democrats quickly cut-and-pasted those attacks as their own.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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