Justice urges state pay raises with improving economy

By MICHAEL VIRTANEN, Associated Press
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Gov. Jim Justice on Wednesday called for pay raises for West Virginia’s jail guards, teachers and other workers in the next fiscal year with the state’s economy and tax revenues now on the upswing.
Addressing the Legislature, the now Republican governor told the GOP-controlled House and Senate the state isn’t facing budget deficits now as it was last year. His revenue and budget staff said none are forecast for the next six years in their plan.
“We now have the money to give every single person in state government a raise,” Justice said. His budget proposes 1 percent raises for teachers, who also get annual step raises, and for service personnel and all other state workers. Jail and prison staff would get an additional $2,000 increase annually for three years.
In his second State of the State Address, Justice called for no tax increases, which got a standing ovation from a crowd of lawmakers, other state officials and guests. He also proposed cutting taxes on industrial inventory, machinery and equipment by $134 million, which would require approvals from the Legislature and voters.
He wants to increase state tourism promotion spending from $6 million to $20 million in the fiscal year that starts July 1 and boost Commerce Department economic development spending by $35 million to market the state.
Justice announced initiatives by state agencies to stop child sex abuse, which he said afflicts one in 10 children in West Virginia, and to ensure state contractors pay all taxes they owe.
“Education, I think it needs to be the centerpiece of everything we do,” he said. Proposals include enabling high school students studying trades to earn a college associate’s degree and making community and technical colleges less expensive or free.
House Speaker Tim Armstead said later they’ll have to look at the numbers for raises to teachers and all state workers. “I think we’re open to discussing that,” he said.
Armstead said cutting industrial inventory taxes would eliminate what he considers a roadblock to the state economy and job growth.  A pending proposal would cut them out over seven years and maintain related revenue for counties and schools, he said.
Justice, who last year brought cow manure to a press conference to describe his budget disagreements with lawmakers, on Wednesday brought covered platters for the legislative leaders that instead held giant chocolate kisses. He also brought the Greenbrier East High School girls’ basketball team he coaches, and suggested West Virginians call him coach instead of governor.
Republican legislative leaders also have voiced support for authorizing “co-tenancy,” which would permit drilling for natural gas when most owners of a land parcel — 75 percent under one proposal — want it.
The House Democratic Caucus has called for increasing tourism promotion funding to help create jobs, helping students with more affordable community and technical college and protecting seniors by exempting Social Security benefits from state income taxes.
With West Virginia facing what Justice called “this terrible drug epidemic,” a dozen senators on Wednesday introduced legislation that would generally limit initial doctor and dentist prescriptions of opiates for acute, or short-term, pain to seven days.
The bill would limit those painkiller prescriptions to three days for minors and for emergency-room outpatients.
Sen. Ryan Weld, a Brooke County Republican and prosecutor, said many drug cases involve stolen leftover drugs and this would limit that supply.
On abortion, some House Republicans planned to introduce legislation Thursday that would redefine “medical necessity” intended to limit Medicaid-funded abortions. That followed state data showing the total increased from to 1,560 last year from 677 eight years earlier.