- Associated Press - Monday, May 16, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - In disgust over Republican criticism and the West Virginia Legislature’s delay in implementing a budget, Democratic nominee for governor Jim Justice has asked lawmakers to remove a $1.75 million state sponsorship of the PGA Tour’s Greenbrier Classic.

Justice also announced he’s opening up the golf tournament to the public for free.

The billionaire owner of The Greenbrier resort made the comments Monday in a statement released by his campaign.

A $270 million gap remains in the state budget for the fiscal year starting July 1. Lawmakers couldn’t come up with a budget during their regular session and began meeting in special session Monday. Justice’s opponent in November is Republican Senate President Bill Cole.

Justice said he doesn’t want the state’s support for the tournament “to be used as a political football.”

After Justice bought The Greenbrier out of bankruptcy in 2009, he brought the PGA event to southeastern West Virginia the following year. Justice also built a preseason training facility used by the New Orleans Saints and other teams.

“My dream has always been to change the image of and bring opportunity to our state, and that’s why I wanted to bring the PGA Tour to West Virginia,” Justice said. “The budget mess we’re in now is exactly what’s wrong with politics. I am not going to let politicians delay the budget or bash me over the greatest economic/PR opportunity West Virginia has ever seen.”

Republicans hold a majority in both the Senate and House of Delegates. Justice said he has endured criticism by GOP leaders and therefore “I am refusing the state’s participation” in the golf tournament.

House of Delegates spokesman Jared Hunt said the dropped sponsorship of the tournament was already on the chamber’s list of spending cuts for the upcoming fiscal year.

“House Republican leaders have been vocal since 2010 that taxpayer dollars should not be used to subsidize a private golf tournament,” Hunt said.

And Cole said Monday everything in the state budget is under scrutiny.

“We’re facing some of the toughest budgetary times that we’ve ever faced as a state,” Cole said. “Personally, I’m glad he did it, and it takes it off the table as political fodder.”

The group that operates the tournament, Old White Charities, has received $10.3 million in state payments since 2010, according to state auditor’s office records.

While Justice said spectators would be let in for free at July’s tournament - the admission price for the week starts at $179 - he added that popular free concerts normally held during the tournament won’t occur this year. However, none had been announced for this year anyway.

Past acts have included Keith Urban, The Band Perry, Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton, Aerosmith, Bon Jovi and Tim McGraw.

“In these tough times, I am doing my part by finding a way to make it all work and promote our state to the world,” Justice said. “The politicians need to do their job and balance the budget; I can’t be the only one creating jobs and promoting our greatness.”

A PGA Tour spokesman didn’t immediately offer comment on Justice’s move to admit spectators for free.


Associated Press writer Jonathan Mattise contributed to this report.

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