(03/24/2017)
By Brad McElhinny

Gov. Jim Justice has called members of the legislative majority knuckleheads, blockheads and, this week, idiots. Justice called the Senate majority leader a poodle and himself a grizzly.

And Justice himself has been called a walrus — by Delegate Ron Walters during comments in a House of Delegates floor session.

It might not matter, except the governor and the Legislature are coming down to the wire to settle on a way to resolve the estimated half-billion dollar budget gap for the coming fiscal year. The first couple of days of this week appeared to open up a fissure in the relationship between the governor and the legislative majority.

But if you ask the governor, the name-calling doesn't mean much.

"Well, it doesn't matter to me about them calling me a walrus. To be honest, I'm probably close to being a walrus," said the governor, who is 6-foot-7 and about 400 pounds.

He contrasted the relative pain of being called a name with the struggles of a hypothetical family that would be affected by eliminating programs if the state has to go through significant budget cuts.

"I think there's families that have been sitting at home and are destitute beyond belief for three years. Those people are really hurting," Justice said Tuesday during a discussion of what would happen if the Department of Health and Human Services is cut.

"We're going to sit here and worry about somebody that got called a knucklehead, and we're going to crawl in a hole and say 'That's so bad.' Or 'You called me a walrus, I don't like that, that's so bad.' Well, what's so bad is that family that's home and for crying out loud they can call me a walrus all day long or they can call me a grizzly bear or they can call me whatever they want to call me.

"All I'm trying to do is help that family that's at home and give them a pathway and give them everything because they're depending on us. I don't know if it's constructive or destructive."

Justice seemed to double down on his turns of phrase this week. On Monday, during an appearance before state tourism leaders, he riffed on the image of himself as a grizzly bear. The earlier use of that imagery featured Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns as a yipping poodle.

"They do have a grizz on their ass that's for daggone sure. And he isn't going to back off, that's all there is to it," Justice declared Monday.

At the same appearance, Justice used the word 'idiots' to describe those who have cast the budget debate as a matter of the state living within its means.

"It should have been portrayed 'Recovery or death.' That's what it is. It's recovery or death. It's not taxes or live within your means," Justice said Monday.

Justice later added, "For people to portray this as taxes vs. live within your means, you're an idiot. You're an idiot if you think that. This is recovery versus death."

That prompted Americans for Prosperity-West Virginia, a tax reform organization with funding from the Kochs, to object to the governor's terminology.

"Governor Justice's comments about fiscally conservative citizens of this great state are absolutely reprehensible," stated Jason Huffman, state director for the organization. "Calling the vast majority of West Virginians, 'idiots' is unquestionably inappropriate and speaks more to the absurdity of his historic tax hikes than to the hardworking people of this state."

House Speaker Tim Armstead was upset by Justice's words and actions Tuesday — in particular by the governor's decision to turn on a Capitol dome lantern meant for times of emergency. Justice had said potential cuts to DHHR constitute a statewide health emergency.

"He needs to quit with the stunts, quit with the insults and get serious about this budget," said Armstead, R-Kanawha.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael was irritated Tuesday by comments by the governor indicating a government shutdown would be acceptable if his tax package doesn't pass through the Legislature.

"Oh my gosh, this governor has taken the level of rhetoric and discourse to a new low. I think, frankly, many of the people of West Virginia are disappointed in his approach to governing," said Carmichael, R-Jackson, following the Senate's floor session.

On the House floor on Tuesday, Delegate Kayla Kessinger delivered a speech about the tenor the session has taken on. The speech quoted from Proverbs a couple of times. For example: "Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions."

Kessinger said she has five siblings, including three brothers and is no stranger to name-calling.

"I can personally testify that my mom would not be too happy if she saw me in the media every day and night calling people idiots, knuckleheads, blockheads, grizzly bears or poodles," said Kessinger, R-Fayette.

She said opposite sides of debates should respect each other's intentions.

"I don't believe we, on this side of the aisle, are idiots and believe it or not I don't think any of my friends on the other side of the aisle are idiots for supporting tax increases. I might strongly disagree on that issue but I believe that is not an issue based on your IQ but based on political philosophy," Kessinger said.

She said West Virginia's elected officials can do better to raise the level of discourse and to earn the respect of the state's citizens.

"The taxpayers didn't send us here to call each other names and to fool around and to make in appropriate comments," Kessinger said.

"They sent us here to do serious business, their business, to work together to be statesmen and stateswomen who are worthy of their respect."

- Meanwhile the governor has lit the State of Disaster light in the Capitol Dome, challenging his Republican legislature to reach a budget during the 60 days session. Not likely.


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