The injustice of Jim Justice

This year’s Legislative session is now complete. Depending on one’s perspective it could have been either inconsequential or mildly successful. If you are a lobbyist, then you carried the day, nearly every day for the full session. But that’s not unusual. Those individuals or organizations who can afford any number of wealthy lobbyists will see their issues front and center every year.

One such example this year is Mr. Jim Justice, the owner of the Greenbrier Resort in Greenbrier County. I’m sure you remember that the Legislature passed special legislation a few years ago to allow Mr. Justice to open a casino at the Historic Resort. It was probably the right thing to do in order to keep the hotel open and salvage several hundred jobs. Later Mr. Justice asked for a $2 million tourism grant from the Legislature to hold the Greenbrier Classic golf tournament.

Now let’s be honest. Mr. Justice has made a tremendous investment in the tourism business in West Virginia. Probably no one individual has invested more of their personal wealth. However, here’s the latest on this year’s dose of corporate welfare. The Senate had taken up a bill to provide additional tourism incentives for folks who might want to place a business on or adjacent to state park properties. Our parks, for the most part, are not positive cash generators and in an effort to keep them open, the bill encouraged private investment. Yes, a good thing.

Now, as the saying goes, the fat possum runs at night. On the 59th day of the 60-day session the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee called a special meeting and brought back the Tourism Bill. We were then given a major amendment which rewrote the bill to give Mr. Justice several million dollars in tax breaks for a new (medical) project at the Greenbrier. The lobbyists, led by Larry Puccio, the chairman of West Virginia’s Democrat Party, promised hundreds of millions in future projects at the resort. However, they claimed to be under a “confidentiality agreement” and shared no details. Now, it’s not unusual for new businesses which will provide many jobs to ask for special breaks in order to finance and get the project going. The difference? Mr. Justice’s project had already been announced, staff recruited and site preparation begun. Obviously, the project would be completed even if the tax credits were not awarded.

Why did I oppose this bill? First, the tax breaks were not needed for the project to move. Second, even if the project warranted the special treatment, bring it to us on day one of the session, not the last two days. This is typical of the “good ol’ boy” system of sneaking legislation through for friends and family on the last day. We should have had time to evaluate the project on its merits.

More reasons? How about huge multi-million dollar deficits in this year’s budget? How about cuts in programs to seniors, disabled, working single mothers and debate over giving the lowest paid workers in West Virginia a raise in the minimum wage? How about the fact that our state’s leadership is going to take millions from our “Rainy Day Fund” to pay the state’s obligations? But then, legislators moved quickly to give one of the state’s wealthiest residents millions of dollars in unneeded and unnecessary tax breaks. Wasn’t the first time; won’t be the last.

I like to receive your input on issues that are important to you. You may contact me at the Capitol at 304-357-7973 or clark.barnes@wvsenate.gov. My mailing address is: Room 203W, Bldg. 1, 1900 Kanawha Blvd. E., Charleston, WV 25305.