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Justice hosts roundtable discussion with state workers, retirees in Charleston

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Justice hosts roundtable discussion with state workers, retirees in Charleston
By Carrie Hodousek, WV MetroNews

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jim Justice told state workers and retirees in Charleston Tuesday, one week before Election Day, “you are the key to our economic engine.”

Justice, the owner of the Greenbrier Resort, hosted a roundtable discussion at Embassy Suites to hear from employees concerned about higher deductibles, premiums, copays and prescription costs within the state Public Employees Insurance Agency — a hotly debated issue over the last several months.

During the discussion, Justice told workers “you have the perfect storm” and that, if elected governor, he would find ways to create additional revenue to compensate them.

“This is not rocket science. At the end of the day, you cannot tax and cut our way out of this mess. You’ve got to grow our way out of it,” he told MetroNews.

Coal will be “a major player” to dramatically raise West Virginia’s severance tax, Justice said, but that coal won’t be the only solution to fix the state’s financial problems.

“There is so many things. Tourism and agriculture and high tech, our universities, on and on. My timber plan to bring furniture manufacturing back,” he said. “We just really got to get our engine running and go to it.”

Justice took several jabs at challenger Bill Cole, the state Senate President and Republican nominee. During the meeting, he told employees “Bill Cole can’t get you out of this mess. He’s a car dealer” and that “he has no knowledge.”

Elaine Harris, state international representative for the Communications Workers of America and vice president of the West Virginia AFL-CIO, said she sees the struggle from state workers every day.

“They often feel like they are forgotten. They’re neglected and when you have legislative leadership that says they’re going to fully fund PEIA and it’s not fully funded — just ask anyone to look at their paycheck stub,” Harris said after the event.

Those insured with PEIA still have to pay a 12 percent increase that’s included in the current state budget.

“They love their jobs, but they’re getting pinched everywhere they can be pinched,” Justice said. “After a point in time, you become beat down.”

Fred Farris, a sixth grade teacher at Independence Middle School in Raleigh County, said he was motivated to participate in Tuesday’s discussion because he has received dramatic increases to his copay for a medication he’s been on for more than 15 years.

“It went from $0 copay to $25 copay to $974 copay per month. That’s unconscionable. People cannot afford that on school teacher salaries. You’d have to be a millionaire to be able to comfortably do something like that,” Farris said. “It’s not right.”

Wendy Peters, a third grade teacher at Daniels Elementary in Raleigh County, said she jumped at the chance to talk to Justice about deductions to her paycheck.

“My pay is going down because of PEIA,” she said. “That’s very frustrating and I see teachers leaving the state in droves because we don’t have the benefits and we don’t have the pay that surrounding states have.”

State employees told MetroNews they left Tuesday’s meeting with hope that Justice could turn the state around. Peters and Farris said Justice has their vote next week.

“We haven’t heard anyone who’s had a plan like he has and want our input, which is amazing,” Peters said.

“Certainly he’s been successful in many aspects of his life and it’s refreshing and encouraging to have him invite people and come in say ‘what’s wrong? Let’s sit down and try to fix it’,” Farris said. “He’s our best way out of this mess.”

If elected governor, Justice promised he would provide solutions immediately after his inauguration in January.

“If I am humbled by our voters to be able to have that honor, I will hit the ground that very day running,” he said.