Justice presser or GOP stump speech?

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Justice presser or GOP stump speech?
Phil Kabler, Charleston Gazette Mail; Statehouse Beat

Have to say that in my nearly 29 years of covering the Statehouse, I have never seen a gubernatorial press conference so blatantly political as the one Gov. Jim Justice held last week.

(Actually, I had to watch the video replay since I was covering the impeachment trial, and given Justice's reputation for being notoriously late, I feared the two would overlap.)

Justice dove right into the Republican leadership's revisionist history that pay raises for teachers, school service personnel, and state employees resulted not from pressure exerted by the historic statewide teachers' walkout - which Justice dismissed as "the people that were rah-rahing and everything upstairs" - but sprung full-cloth from the benevolence of Republican legislators, many of whom he had gathered behind him.

Then, for someone who claims not to be a politician, Justice pulled out one of the oldest old-school politician tricks in the book, promising pay raises for all, and plenty of state cash, this time in the form of $100 million for the Public Employees Insurance Agency, a month out from Election Day.

(Clearly, somebody's worried that "Remember in November" will be a rallying cry, and not a hollow slogan, come Nov. 6.)

While legislative leaders so far have put on a brave face in backing Justice's proposals, the giant sucking sound of some $240 million of state revenue being taken off the table means saying goodbye to other party goals for 2019 legislative session, such as taking another stab at cutting the inventory tax, or lowering personal income tax rates.

That Justice had to twice prompt his fellow Republicans to applaud for the pay raise and PEIA funding proposals speaks volumes.

Justice's promise to commit $100 million to PEIA looks a lot like a way to try to distract voters from the reality that his PEIA Task Force appears to be treading water, if not dead in the water.

As Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, pointed out in a letter to Justice, the Task Force subcommittees have been on hiatus for the past six weeks (with no meetings scheduled so far for October).

When the panels last met in August, it wasn't like they were making gangbusters progress: The Cost and Revenue subcommittee remained at a loss for finding a dedicated revenue source for PEIA, while the Coverage and Plan subcommittee decided to research public employee health insurance plans in other states - which seems like something that should have been done back in March, when the Task Force first began meeting.

One theory is that it's better for the Task Force to remain dormant, and leave voters in doubt as to whether it will be able to come up with a promised "fix" for PEIA, than to meet again and remove all doubt.