Beshear should push billionaire to pay delinquent property taxes

Jim Justice
Jim Justice

A company owned by the coal magnate running for West Virginia governor reportedly paid delinquent property taxes last week in McDowell County, W. Va., after reporter Bill Estep exposed Democrat Jim Justice as a tax scofflaw in last Sunday's Herald-Leader.

Justice's companies still owe $3.5 million in property taxes in Eastern Kentucky. The billionaire deadbeat seems in no hurry to make good.

And Gov. Steve Beshear is offering the six struggling counties no help in collecting from his political ally.

The tax money is desperately needed to pay for services in chronically poor places that have been slammed by recent declines in coal jobs and coal severance tax revenue. Public schools especially could put the unpaid taxes to good use as families migrate in search of work and declining enrollment costs schools state funding.

At least two counties, Knott and Harlan, have sued Justice's companies. In others, county attorneys have sought payment plans on tax bills dating back to 2013.

The state Revenue Department, which is supposed to oversee property tax collection, told us last week that county attorneys are on their own when it comes to collecting the taxes and arranging payment plans.

Slumping demand may have idled Justice's mining operations, but ability to pay is not his problem.

When he filed to seek next year's Democratic nomination for West Virginia governor, Justice's estimated net worth was $1.6 billion.

Justice has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Beshear's political committees and the Kentucky Democratic Party.

Just a few months ago, Beshear golfed with Tiger Woods at the Greenbrier, the famous West Virginia resort owned by Justice. And Justice has been part of Beshear's Kentucky Derby entourage.

Last year, the Beshear administration let Justice pay just 34 cents on the dollar for environmental fines his coal companies amassed in Kentucky. In addition to paying $1.5 million of the $4.4 million that was owed, Justice also agreed to post $10.6 million in bonds to repair his mining operations' environmental damage.

Perhaps what's most remarkable about all this is the lack of outrage. For good reasons, Kentuckians and West Virginians have low expectations of the coal industry, in general, and Justice, whose operations are notorious for not paying suppliers, in particular.

Justice's civic delinquency is monumental, yet he has been the West Virginia frontrunner in some polls. He also has apologists among Kentuckians who have forgotten that coal-industry wealth has always flowed out of the mountains while the poverty stays.

Beshear has teamed up with Republican Rep. Hal Rogers to position Eastern Kentucky for long-term redevelopment. The outcome of this bipartisan effort will be a key to Beshear's legacy.

In his final weeks as governor, Beshear should show that a new day really is dawning in the mountains. He can do this by making clear that no one — not even a big political contributor — is above the law, not even in a region that has long bowed under the coal industry's yoke, but is ready now to grow a more diverse economy.