In what might be a template for his 2020 re-election campaign, Gov. Jim Justice urged West Virginians on Monday to be thankful for figures he said show the state’s economy and employment are growing.
“We ought to be celebrating, and running up and down the streets. It’s amazing,” Justice said at his first news conference at the Capitol in three months.
Justice cited WorkForce West Virginia figures showing that state employers have added about 19,000 jobs in 2019. In October, the state had 763,000 jobs.
That number is at odds with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which puts the state’s payroll employment at 733,100 for October, up 3,200 jobs from October 2018, an increase of 0.4 percent.
The number also doesn’t appear to be supported by state personal income tax collection, which through October is running $28.96 million below projections and is just $3.14 million above the same point in 2018, at $661.14 million.
Steve Roberts, the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce president, said WorkForce West Virginia uses federal numbers to calculate its job numbers.
“I’m not really one to call names or point fingers, but some would say, certainly, the civil service that some refer to as the ‘deep state’ in Washington are the ones responsible for those numbers,” Roberts said Monday.
Roberts later clarified that he used “deep state” as a generic term for career federal bureaucrats, not as an allusion to the conspiracy theory of a shadow government that frequently operates counter to the wishes of elected officials in Washington.
“That, in my mind, doesn’t make them nefarious, nor was I meaning to refer to them in some pejorative way,” said Roberts, who said he believes the difference in the BLS and WorkForce West Virginia numbers stems from the fact that the latter counts farm workers, entrepreneurs and gig-economy workers who may not show up in the federal payroll statistics.
Roberts also did not directly address why personal income tax collection has been flat so far in the 2019-20 budget year, despite an apparent jump in employment, but cited growth in income taxes since 2014.
Meanwhile, Deputy Revenue Secretary Mark Muchow warned legislators last week to treat the employment numbers with a grain of salt.
“The employment picture is not as good as it looks on paper, or at WorkForce West Virginia,” Muchow said at the time.
Nonetheless, the narrative of Justice’s news conference Monday was one of state economic growth, driven by, in his words, less regulation, lower taxes, passage of a right-to-work law, changes to the court system and “a more conservative court.”
Using a sports metaphor, Justice contended that the West Virginia economy is winning, despite having its star player on the bench.
“We don’t have the coal industry today ... it’s absolutely sputtering,” he said. “We’re back winning without our superstar.”
A major downturn in natural gas prices and coal prices and production has left the state budget with a $33.26 million shortfall through October, but Justice said Monday that he is optimistic that there’s still time for growth in other areas of the economy to make up the difference.
“Hopefully, we’re not going to have to cut anything, but we still want to do the prudent and right thing,” said Justice, who, in October, called on state agency heads to come up with $100 million in spending cuts for the 2019-20 budget year, in the event the revenue shortfall continues.
The downturn follows a record year for tax collection in 2018-19.
Also Monday, Justice gave himself credit for the improving economy, calling himself the bandleader who was able to put all pieces of the puzzle together.
“You’ve got a leader of the band who’s not a politician, but a business guy,” Justice said of himself.
To that end, when Major League Baseball announced a proposal to eliminate 42 minor league baseball teams in 2021, including three of the four teams in West Virginia, Justice said he was able to pick up the phone and get MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred on the line.
“It’s really important that you’ve got a leader of the band that’s having these discussions directly with the head guy in order to be able to make things happen so that we don’t lose something that’s an economic driver, and something that people really enjoy,” Justice said.
Meanwhile, as he does frequently, Justice criticized local news media for putting “a negative slant on things.”
Addressing reporters, he said, “We try every day to get more and more and more folks to come to West Virginia. You have a profound impact on that.”