<strong>By Phil Kabler For The West Virginia Press Association<\/strong>\r\n<h1>As it did in 2017, the 2018 regular session of the Legislature got underway\u00a0Wednesday\u00a0with an unscripted, unconventional State of the State address\u00a0from Gov. Jim Justice.<\/h1>\r\nJustice\u2019s 49-minute address to a joint session of the House and Senate in House chambers included\u00a0references to Frankenstein, ringworm, and lines at the Dairy Queen, and also featured two whiteboards and a\u00a0variety of props, including a several silver platters, homage to Justice\u2019s infamous budget veto last summer.\r\n\r\nThis time, instead of containing bull manure, much to the displeasure of legislators, the platters presented to legislative leaders\u00a0Wednesday\u00a0in a show\u00a0of good faith included a giant Hershey\u2019s Kiss, a blue and gold boutonniere, and an 8-track tape titled, \u201cHappy Days.\u201d\r\n\r\nLikewise, instead of requesting some $400 million in tax hikes to close a nearly $500 million budget deficit, as he proposed in 2017, Justice\u00a0on\u00a0Wednesday\u00a0told legislators: \u201cMy request for a tax increase would be zero. Zero,\u201d holding his hands aloft to form a zero.\r\n\r\nJustice\u2019s whiteboards showed that where the six-year budget forecast last year projected growing shortfalls each year, the current six-year forecast\u00a0shows every year in the black.\r\n\r\n\u201cYou can\u2019t fathom how dire it was, and you can\u2019t imagine how promising it looks,\u201d Justice said of the change.\r\n\r\nJustice\u2019s budget advisors cited a number of factors for the dramatic turnaround in the state\u2019s financial picture, including a 60 percent increase in\u00a0natural gas prices, stabilization of coal markets, and modest growth in private-sector employment, led by a jump in construction jobs.\r\n\r\nCombined by strong 15.8 percent growth on state investments, and $163 million of Medicaid funding that was appropriated but not spent, and the\u00a0state\u2019s financial picture has gone, at least temporarily, from crisis mode to stability.\r\n\r\nTwo key provisions in Justice\u2019s State of the State address\u00a0Wednesday\u00a0were relatively unchanged from his 2017 address: Increasing the budget for the\u00a0state Development Office by $35 million, and significantly increasing state spending for tourism promotion. Last year, legislators soundly rejected both proposals, while slamming the door on Justice\u2019s proposed tax hikes. This year, the two development initiatives are getting a warm reception from the Legislature. As Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said of the change of attitude, \u201cA year ago, we were in a $500 million budget crisis. There\u2019s more\u00a0of an appetite to consider these things this year.\u201d\r\n\r\nHouse Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, said another important difference is that Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher and Development\u00a0Office Director Kris Hopkins have earned the trust of the Legislature in the past year. \u201cThey have validated their credentials and demonstrated some real successes,\u201d Nelson said, adding, \u201cIt\u2019s just a matter of better understanding the\u00a0opportunities that are available, and where we can get a better bang for our buck, so to speak.\u201d\r\n\r\nJustice is also proposing 1 percent pay raises for teachers, school service personnel, and state employees, as well as a $6,000 salary increase, phased\u00a0in over three years, for correctional officers at critically understaffed state prisons, regional jails, and juvenile facilities.\r\n\r\nAlso, on Wednesday, instead of proposing tax increases, Justice called for a seven-year, $140 million phase-out of personal property taxes on\u00a0business inventory, equipment and machinery, a tax Nelson called the single biggest hindrance to bringing economic development and jobs to the\u00a0state. Currently, the revenue goes to counties, primarily to support public schools.\r\n\r\nJustice on Wednesday pledged that counties will be made whole, without giving specifics, saying, \u201cOne thing we\u2019ve got to insure is that education,\u00a0and our counties and cities won\u2019t get hurt. We can do that. We can absolutely do that with this.\u201d\r\n\r\nThe proposal, which would require voters approving a constitutional amendment on the November general election ballot, drew a strong round of\u00a0applause from legislators. That prompted Justice to comment, \u201cIf you all don\u2019t quit this clapping, we\u2019re going to be here all bloomin\u2019 night.\u201d\r\n\r\nThe 60-day regular session continues through\u00a0March 10. Unlike the past two years, when budget impasses have kept the Legislature in extended session into June, Nelson said he\u2019s optimistic the budget bill\u00a0can be passed this year during the regular session.\r\n\r\nTo that end, he\u2019s advocating that the House and Senate pass any bills that require funding by the 45th\u00a0day of the session, providing a cushion to\u00a0include those changes in the budget bill during the final two weeks of the session.