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Dems, candidates respond to Justice speech

CHARLESTON — Members of the Democratic minority in the West Virginia Legislature and candidates looking to unseat the governor in the May primary and November general elections were critical of Justice’s State of the State address Wednesday night.

Sen. William Ihlenfeld, D-Ohio, and Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, gave the Democratic response to Justice’s State of the State after its conclusion Wednesday night.

“I’ve heard a lot of unbelievable stuff in my lifetime, and a lot of it was out there in the House chamber, for the last hour and 15 minutes,” Sponaugle said.

Sponaugle, a Democratic candidate for state Attorney General, pushed back on Justice’s rosy view of the state. Justice touted the state’s low unemployment numbers, ranking first in GDP growth, record-breaking revenue growth numbers, and growth in personal income. Sponaugle said that those statements ignore the fact that West Virginia is still 50th in many categories.

“It’s unbelievable he would just sit up there and say bold, flat-out lies to the state of West Virginia in his State of the State,” Sponaugle said. “Address the problems that we have. Don’t try to spin this because it’s an election year on things that are all cherry-picked.”

Ihlenfeld appreciated Justice’s optimism, but agreed with Sponaugle that not all of the facts point in the direction Justice was using in his address.

“I’m an optimist…but sometimes people need to be told the facts,” Ihlenfeld said. “As much as it pains me to say it, the picture isn’t as bright as the governor painted.”

Ihlenfeld, a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of West Virginia, praised Justice for including $19.5 million on the wait list for the state intellectual and developmental disability waiver program, $26.5 million for services to help the state’s foster care program, expanding the Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy to Montgomery and added funding for senior services and veterans.

However, Ihlenfeld criticized Justice for not announcing new initiatives to deal with the substance abuse crisis. Justice praised the new Jobs and Hope program that helps substance abuse victims receive treatment and job training. The program now has more than 1,200 referrals. Justice also unveiled a new Narcotics Intelligence Unit to slow the flow of illegal drugs into the state.

“We have good things happening in pockets of the state…but we need to do much more on the opioid crisis,” Ihlenfeld said. “I’m consistently disappointed with the governor.”

Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango, a Democratic candidate for governor in the May 12 primary, echoed the comments by Sponaugle and Ihlenfeld.

“West Virginia is facing serious problems. Our infrastructure is crumbling, we have over 10,000 homeless students, we have the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the country and too many West Virginians are struggling to find a job that can pay the bills,” Salango said. “Gov. Justice’s promises are wearing thin and he can’t sweep the truth under the rug. We need a full-time governor who will put West Virginia first. It’s time for West Virginia to move forward.”

Stephen Smith, another Democratic candidate for governor, said the $1 million for food banks was not nearly enough, accusing Justice of being more interested in helping corporations than people.

“Like any Good Old Boy politician, Gov. Justice spoke as if there wasn’t enough to go around, but made sure to throw in a few crumbs at the end,” Smith said. “To put it in perspective, the $1 million in new funds for food banks amounts to less than half of what the governor and the other Good Old Boys have already written to themselves in checks to buy the next election. Last night, Gov. Justice continued to sell West Virginians the oldest lie that Good Old Boy politicians tell: that our state is too poor to treat our people with dignity.”

Republican candidate for governor Woody Thrasher, a businessman and former Commerce Department secretary in the Justice Administration, was also disappointed that Justice didn’t spend more time on the opioid crisis.

“It took Jim Justice 45 minutes to mention the most urgent crisis crippling every corner of our state,” Thrasher said. “He talked about the program he created in his name, which only grazes just one of so many aspects of our drug epidemic.”

Thrasher also wanted to hear more about Justice’s plans going forward for secondary road maintenance. The state’s second round of Roads to Prosperity bonds brought in an extra $146.5 million, some of which will be used for secondary road maintenance.

“School children in Monongalia County, one of our most populous counties, couldn’t ride their bus to or from school this week because of dangerous road conditions,” Thrasher said. “Where is the long-term plan to actually sustain this year’s flash-in-the pan road work?”