By May 18, 2017 Read More →

Justice begs House to pass a budget; Senate waits

By LACIE PIERSON

The Herald-Dispatch

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Any lingering optimism for a quick and easy legislative session to establish a budget for the state of West Virginia for 2018 was fading in the West Virginia Capitol on Wednesday.

Wednesday was the fifth day of a special session of the 83rd West Virginia Legislature.

West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, center, talks with Greg Boss, R-Nicholas, in the Senate chamber Wednesday.
(Photo by Perry Bennett, West Virginia Legislative Photography)

By the end of the day, members of the West Virginia Senate decided to return home until the House of Delegates pass a revenue measure, and Gov. Jim Justice scolded Senate Democrats and begged members of the House to bring any revenue measure to a vote.

During the 1 p.m. Senate session, leaders planned to reconvene at 4:30 p.m. with the idea that the House could approve its first tax and revenue measure of the special session, which began May 4.

“In the event that they take action on any of the measures that we’ve sent them, or a measure they want to send to us, we will be prepared at 4:30 to take action upon that,” Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said around 1:30 p.m. Wednesday. “That’s a highly unlikely circumstance, but we’re just prepared in the event of.”

The event never came, as the Senate’s Tax Reform Act of 2017 and the House’s version of the tax reform bill were in the House Finance Committee. Members of the committee did not discuss either bill Wednesday.

Planning for such an event, senators also voted Wednesday afternoon to adjourn until 6 p.m. Thursday with the understanding that only two senators would return for Thursday’s session.

According to the first rule of the Senate, at least half of the members have to be present to establish a quorum and conduct business. Only two members are needed to move to adjourn.

Knowing that, Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, told senators that Carmichael and a second senator would convene each day to see if the House passed a revenue measure.

When the House passes a revenue measure, Carmichael said he and a second senator can call the rest of the Senate back to Charleston to receive and consider the legislation approved by the House.

Under Senate rules, without a quorum no senators can be paid.

“We are protecting the taxpayers of West Virginia from spending additional funds while we wait on the House to do their job,” Carmichael said. “So we are going to take a break and give them some breathing space to act upon the bills that are necessary to conduct the business of the state of West Virginia.”

The House Finance Committee did not take up either of the tax reform bills in meetings at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. Wednesday.

Committee members did question provisions of House Bill 103, the “roads bill” from Justice that would allow the West Virginia Parkway Authority to determine DMV fees and toll rates to support construction projects throughout the state.

Committee members expressed concerns about the authority’s broad discretion to affect the projects and fees during their meetings, and the bill was not advanced from the committee Wednesday.

When the House was set to reconvene at 4 p.m. for its evening session, Justice requested to address them ahead of their session. Justice addressed Senate members Tuesday evening.

In a nearly 20-minute speech Wednesday, Justice went back and forth between pleading with House members to vote on a revenue measure and scolding Senate Democrats for voting against the Senate’s Tax Reform Act of 2017 on Tuesday.

The measure was approved on a party-line vote, 19-11, in the Senate, with four senators absent.

“Yesterday was unbelievable to me,” Justice said. “Unbelievable. You know, again, I’ve got to say this. A lot of times you may think, well, it bothers me. Sure it does. You know, when you give it everything you’ve got in the world and your friends desert you, you daggum well it bothers you, and when they desert you in unison, you’re daggum well it bothers you big time.”

The measure approved in the Senate lowered the income tax, increased the sales tax rate, increased the corporate net income tax and increased the tax credit rate for projects to restore historical buildings.

Even as he expressed frustration with Democrats in the Senate, Justice shared that frustration with the House, which has yet to vote on the passage of a revenue measure.

“Whatever proposal you come up with, I beg you to vote,” Justice said. “I don’t care how many times you vote – vote. If you want to tweak and modify, tweak and modify, but vote.”

In addition to the revenue and roads bills, lawmakers have advanced a bill to allow for the furlough of state employees in the event of a budget emergency.

The Senate’s roads and furlough bills were in third reading Wednesday, and Carmichael said they would be good to go for a vote when the Senate reconvenes.

Wednesday was the fifth day of a special legislative session that began May 4. Lawmakers adjourned May 5, saying they would use the following week to negotiate a tax and budget plan. They reconvened Monday.

The cost for the legislative session is $35,000 per day.

At issue is the amount of revenue in the state’s general revenue fund, which accounts for 33 percent of the state’s total budget, which also includes federal dollars and grants.

Justice and members of the Republican-led Legislature originally were about $450 million apart on the budget when the regular legislative session began Feb. 8. That session ended April 9.

The governor’s original budget called for $4.5 billion in spending and $450 million in tax increases, and the Republican-majority leaders wanted about $4.1 billion and included major cuts to state-supported entities.

Members of the Senate have approved two tax reform and revenue measures during the special session, both based on negotiations with Justice that put the budget right at about $4.35 billion.

The first was approved May 5, but the measure was killed on first reading in the House the same day. The second was the bill senators approved Tuesday and is in the hands of members of the House Finance Committee.

Article 6, Section 51 of the West Virginia Constitution requires the governor to present a budget bill to legislators, and it allows legislators to amend the budget bill, adding revenue or reallocating existing funds. However, the state constitution prevents legislators from passing bills that would create a budget deficit.

The constitution doesn’t state an official budget deadline, but fiscal year 2018 begins July 1, 2017.

On Monday, Justice chief of staff Nick Casey instructed West Virginia’s Cabinet secretaries to start developing a contingency plan for a potential shutdown in state government.

In his memo, Casey asked the nine secretaries to develop plans for how their departments would proceed in the event that the Legislature and Justice do not approve a budget in enough time to implement it at the start of fiscal year 2018.

Casey said he wanted Cabinet members to identify essential services by Tuesday, May 30. He also said a budget needed to be in place by June 19, 2017, to make the necessary accounting and system adjustments to start a new budget year.

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