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Howard's Commentary - Crystal Balling 2017 - Part 2

A steep learning curve, deepening budget crisis, and increased partisan divide will set the stage for West Virginia's government this year.

As the Mountain State legislature becomes deeper red, the executive branch is going through major personnel upheaval. In addition to newly elected Governor Jim Justice, November's election put new faces on the board of public works: Mac Warner, Secretary of State; Kent Leonhardt, Ag Commissioner; J. B. McCuskey, Auditor.

And Justice has essentially purged all of Earl Ray Tomblin's top appointments replacing them with newcomers.

These executive branch changes mean all top leadership steps into jobs they have to learn. Good and capable people to be sure, but with lots of systems and info to assimilate quickly.

That puts a lot of responsibility on Justice's Chief of Staff, Nick Casey, who brings significant previous experience in government to his post and will be a point man, not just for the governor but for other appointed department heads as they learn the ropes.

Republican Secretary of State Mac Warner has already told many of current Secretary Natalie Tennant's team that they will no longer be needed. And most of the new Board of Public Works will likely bring key team members with them rather than keeping the current, as is standard practice with change of leadership.

Even the WV Supreme Court gets into the action with the firing of long time court administrator Steve Canterbury.

Meantime, as the legislature prepares for their session and Governor-elect Justice works on his State of the State speech, the budget hole for the coming year is huge.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — State Revenue Secretary Bob Kiss told state lawmakers Tuesday that if there are no further state budget cuts or tax increases the 2018 fiscal year budget will have a deficit "north of $400 million."(

GOP legislators seem dead set against any kind of tax hike.

"The people of West Virginia are struggling financially and cannot endure additional tax burdens to prop up government," Senate President-elect Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said. "Just as each family is faced with difficult financial choices when money is scarce, our state government must do the same. (

Which means more cuts likely could be coming. It may be phrased as "rightsizing" or "reforming", but you can expect calls for less government, perhaps more privatization, and it seems certain that all of these will focus on cuts for things the state's working/middle class benefits from. GOP controlled legislature seems certain to leave big business tax breaks alone and perhaps even ask for more.

Justice is reluctant but not ruling them out.

Asked by another reporter if he still thinks he can propose a balance budget without raising taxes, Justice said: "You never say never, no matter what the situation might be. But I believe with all my soul, yes, I can do it."(

The Mountain State's working men and women have been taking it on the chin the last several years as the Republicans have taken charge (removing prevailing wage, establishing right to work). And there is little reason to think this year will be any different.

These will come in many disguises and many will sound good: "Government reform", "tort reform", "rightsizing" but they will amount to the same thing--giving big business greater sway and taking more from our working class.

Higher ed which has been hard hit by continuing cuts from Tomblin as revenues dwindle can anticipate more efforts at reducing their state support. Education is a literal and philosophical investment in our future. Literal because a recent report shows that colleges, universities, and community colleges all bring more economic impact to their communities than they cost. And, of course, philosophical because an investment in education is an investment in our children and our future.

As revenue enhancements, budget cuts, or even Justice's once-mentioned "bridge loan" concept are debated to get us through the 2018 budget crisis, lawmakers also need to look at redirecting WV's economy. Broadband expansion, marijuana legalization of some sort, and other creative approaches need considered. Legislators need to take a hard look at how they can lead into new economic opportunities--recognizing it's the private sector that ends up bringing the new jobs.

The budget should be priority number 1,2,3,4, and 5 for legislators when they kick into gear next month, but I fear that the ALEC-driven agenda of right wing social issues--such as a revisit of the RFRA (the incorrectly named Religious Freedom Restoration Act)--may end up back on the agenda as well.

The so-called "judicial hellhole" report--which is just a PR ploy by big business and insurance groups--has removed the Mountain State from its list, but that won't stop the GOP from mounting additional attacks on your right to redress when you've been aggrieved.

Budget crisis management when the legislature is politically divided, attempts at more attacks on working men and women, new faces across the board, and a need to be forward thinking will be a major juggling act for everyone involved in state government.

We'll follow it closely every day on The Watchdog Morning Show.