By April 5, 2017 Read More →

House, Senate likely to pass differing WV budget bills Wednesday

By PHIL KABLER

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The West Virginia House and Senate are poised Wednesday to pass versions of the 2017-18 state budget that are miles apart from each other and even further from Gov. Jim Justice’s budget proposal, a $4.394 billion budget that requires $224 million in new taxes.

With the Governor’s Office indicating that he will veto either legislative version of the budget, prospects for a repeat of the 2016 budget impasse appear to be growing as the 2017 regular session nears its conclusion late Saturday.

The Senate has proposed a bare-bones $4.102 billion budget, with no tax increases, but with more than $160 million in cuts to public education, higher education, Medicaid and public health programs (SB 199).

That includes $76.6 million in cuts to public education; $50 million to higher education (15 percent across-the-board cuts); and $43.3 million to the Department of Health and Human Resources — including a $3.26 million cut for in-home care for developmentally disabled individuals, and a $418,000 cut for in-home care for the elderly.

Justice said Monday that, if the Senate version of the budget reaches his desk, he would veto it, “in a millisecond.”

While the House of Delegates had not yet unveiled its budget bill during Justice’s Monday afternoon meeting with business, labor, education and tourism leaders to promote his budget plan, his spokesman said Tuesday that the governor also would veto the House plan, if it reaches his desk.

“He’ll veto any budget that kills the patient with devastating cuts, and fails to raise revenue to fix the budget crisis,” Justice spokesman Grant Herring said of the House plan. “The governor’s been clear that he wants a budget that has participation from businesses, the wealthy, the people and government.”

The House’s proposal (HB 2018) calls for a $4.24 billion budget, using $137 million in new tax revenue from legislation that would eliminate existing sales tax exemptions on telecommunications services, personal services and on direct business use of transportation and communications services.

Justice has called that bill a “back-door tax” that “doubles down” taxes on manufacturers and contractors.

“Why in the world would we come up with this crazy [of] a proposal that’s incomplete with just five days left in the session?” Justice said Monday.

Justice, however, has proposed raising $68 million a year in new revenue by eliminating some sales tax exemptions, including taxing telecommunications, electronic data processing and health club memberships — proposals also incorporated in the House tax plan.

While not as severe as the Senate proposal, the House budget would cut public education by about $21.7 million, higher education by $13.2 million (4.4 percent across-the-board), and would cut Medicaid funding by $10 million. However, it would fully fund the in-home care waiver programs that the Senate bill would cut.

The House bill would eliminate the office of secretary of education and the arts, saving $5.2 million, and moving four agencies to new departments.

It would move the Educational Broadcasting Authority, which oversees West Virginia Public Broadcasting and “Mountain Stage,” to the state Department of Education, and would cut its general revenue budget by $1 million, to $3.62 million.

However, the Senate budget would eliminate funding for the EBA entirely. The EBA has been something of a political football this session — Justice’s initial budget plan eliminated EBA funding as part of $26.6 million in budget cuts. In mid-March, Justice introduced a revised budget that would fully fund the EBA, contingent on passage of his tax-increase proposals, and said he had put the agency on the chopping block as a way to “start a dialogue” with the Legislature on budget issues.

The House and Senate bills would eliminate $4.34 million in DHHR programming, including eliminating $3 million for tobacco education, $427,500 for the Cardiac Project, $420,198 for the Center for End of Life Care, $155,500 for the Women’s Commission and $146,426 for the Healthy Lifestyles program.

Neither the House bill nor Senate bill includes $21 million in funding for a 2 percent pay raise for classroom teachers, sought by Justice, or funding for a $5.6 million increase in the state tourism advertising budget, which Justice has said is critical to grow the state’s tourism economy.

Also excluded in both legislative bills is any money for Justice’s “Save Our State” fund. Justice has requested $35 million a year over three years to help the Department of Commerce recruit business investment through funding for site development, infrastructure projects and workforce training — funding Justice has said is vital to jump-start the economy.

Justice has argued that the budget needs to increase to overcome a $500 million shortfall and to help diversify and grow the economy, a proposal in stark contrast to legislative leadership’s call for the government to “live within its means” by cutting spending, even if that means making potentially devastating cuts to programs and services.

Wednesday marks the 57th day of the 60-day regular session. Under the state Constitution, since the Legislature will not have passed the budget bill by Wednesday, Justice will be required to issue a proclamation extending the session, to allow the Legislature to continue work on the budget beyond Saturday.

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