In a speech that was more a victory lap than agenda setting, Gov. Jim Justice had limited directives for the Republican-led Legislature during his final year in office. He touted growing businesses, cutting taxes and protecting unborn children.

His longest verbal request of lawmakers focused on high school sports, as he asked the Republican-led body to “fix” the state’s new high school sports transfer rule that resulted in lopsided football scores and frustrated communities.

“I don’t know what the solution is,” Justice said. “If we don’t watch out, we are going to ruin high school sports in West Virginia.”

The remarks were the popular Republican governor’s final State of the State address as he pursues a seat in the U.S. Senate.

In the past, Justice’s speeches have been filled with folksy language and dotted with dramatic, memorable moments. In 2022, as he punched back at Bette Middler’s online criticism of West Virginia, the governor held up the hind end of his pet English bulldog to the crowd.

But Wednesday’s speech was light on props and he focused on asking state leaders to “mind the store” — Justice’s way of requesting what his administration called a “very conservative” $5.26 billion budget, an increase of about $381 million over last year’s budget.

The financial request includes a 5% pay raise for teachers and state employees along with multi-million dollar investments into funding emergency medical services personnel, veterans’ college funds, his Communities in Schools education support program, crisis pregnancy centers and an agriculture laboratory at West Virginia State University.

He also called for $5 million in charter school startup funding.

Justice, who touted 23 tax cuts in his eight-year tenure, is seeking two more changes, including the elimination of the tax on social security.

Nearly nine out of 10 individuals over 65 use social security benefits, and the bill would exempt those benefits from taxation. AARP West Virginia has backed the tax cut, saying that social security is meant to lift people out of poverty, not fund state government.

Additionally, the governor asked for a child care and independent tax credit for “folks who are struggling with day care.” Senate and House leadership have already thrown support behind state-funded help for childcare, marking a shift in how the Republican-led body views its role in the state’s child care provider shortage.

“We need this, and we need it very badly,” Justice said.

Del. Kayla Young, a Democrat who has led the House’s efforts on child care reform, called for a more concrete plan that would help families, businesses and child care providers.

“The industry is broken and unfortunately one tax credit for parents who have to pay the full amount to see any return during tax season will not prioritize childcare for West Virginians,” said Young, D-Kanawha.

Senate President Craig Blair and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw said after Justice’s address that they commended the governor’s proposed tax cuts. To keep a flat budget, however, it’s not going to be easy.

“It’s going to take a tremendous amount of work from both bodies [of the Legislature] to make this work, but we will make it work,” Hanshaw said.

Hanshaw said it’s a matter of being “prudent and judicious” about where to put money. Specifically, he continued, the Legislature wants to look at one-time capital investments to improve the state’s long term growth potential.

“We need to use the surplus money that we have for these improvements,” Blair said. “We’re not counting on the coal severance taxes anymore, on the money that used to come in. We need to do this smart and we are.”

There were some mentions of crises in the state, including an overburdened foster care system, a struggling public education system and overcrowded jails, but limited solutions for how the state might address the problems.

During his address, Justice said that staffing conditions are improving in jails. Money made available in the August special session has allowed for better retention for correctional officers and more people — at least 227 in recent months, Justice said — are being trained to work in the state’s jail facilities.

“We’ve tried to do amazing work right now,” Justice said.

Since the 2022 state of emergency, members of the West Virginia National Guard have been providing staff support for jails and prisons across the state. Justice said that downsizing had already begun to scale back the Guard’s presence in jails. By the end of summer, he said, the Guard should be “out of our facilities and we [will] have solved this problem in many ways.”

Notably absent from Justice’s speech was any mention of opioids as the state historically has led the nation in drug overdose deaths.

The state is expected to receive $1 billion in coming years from opioid settlements with pharmaceutical companies.

After Justice’s speech, Blair and Hanshaw both said that, despite Justice’s lack of attention to it, addiction was still a priority for legislative leaders.

“It is absolutely still a priority for the West Virginia Senate,” Blair said. “We need to grow the economy and tax base in West Virginia. To do that we need an educated, drug-free workforce and we know that.”

While millions in funding has been made available from opioid litigation settlements to respond to the epidemic, that money is controlled and allocated by the state-formed nonprofit, the West Virginia First Foundation.

Hanshaw said that he expected leaders with the First Foundation to work collaboratively with lawmakers on efforts to stem addiction and support people who have substance use disorders.

“We in the House absolutely stand committed to stopping substance abuse,” Hanshaw said.

Prior to Justice’s address, acting Revenue Secretary Larry Pack gave more information to reporters about the governor’s proposed budget, which included $100 million in one-time funding to match congressional earmarks, $20 million for senior centers and programs, $30 million for the Department of Tourism, $30 million for the Department of the Natural Resources for state park renovations, $21 million for the Division of Corrections and $3 million for crisis pregnancy centers around the state.

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