By ANDREA LANNOM
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Addressing the West Virginia Press Association’s Legislative Breakfast, legislative leadership and the governor discussed views on the budget progress and other issues the lawmakers will focus on in the second half of the session.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, House Speaker Tim Armstead and Gov. Jim Justice addressed attendees at the Thursday morning event at the Embassy Suites in Charleston.
Carmichael and Armstead expressed optimism about working together to reach a solution to the budget gap.
Justice expressed frustration with partisan politics and, in a press conference later that day, also expressed frustration that the Legislature hasn’t yet produced a budget. However, Armstead said during the breakfast that he has never seen a budget produced before the last day of session.
Carmichael said he believes West Virginia can make it to the other side of the estimated $500 million budget gap for the next fiscal year, comparing the state to the Superbowl.
“We can come together,” Carmichael said. “These are tough times but this is our moment in time. It’s our chance to fundamentally reshape West Virginia. If we miss this opportunity, shame on us. If we miss it because of partisan, political bickering or hurt feelings or comments someone made about something, we need to put all that aside.
“I would liken us to the second half of the Superbowl,” he said. “We’re the New England Patriots and if you remember they were behind at halftime.”
Carmichael said there are four areas the Legislature will have a “laser focus” on for the last half of the session: regulatory reform, education reform, civil justice reform and tax reform.
He said the state needs to move away from a boom-bust economy. He mentioned one of the bills that would repeal the state’s income tax.
“Some will say we can’t get there overnight. All that is true, but it is incumbent upon us legislators to examine the results of states that are working,” Carmichael said.
In a meeting of the Senate Select Committee on Tax Reform earlier this week, the lead sponsor of the bill that would repeal the income tax and replace it with a consumption tax said the bill will undergo revision to address concerns from the fiscal note.
The fiscal note said repealing the personal income tax and replacing it with a consumer tax would cause a net General Revenue Fund decline of $870 million over the first four years.
Armstead referenced Justice’s metaphor of West Virginia as a dying patient.
“One thing I ask when talking about the patient is who is the patient? We talk about the patient and what the current proposals indicate. The patient isn’t government that we need to cure.”
He said Justice’s revenue estimate is a difference of $450 million from the current budget. He also said in his years in the Legislature, he has never seen a budget passed before the last day of session.
He said he’s seen the House and Senate pass budget bills in the last week but never seen a budget passed on the halfway point.
“When you hear ‘Where’s the budget?’ that’s smoke and mirrors,” he said. “We are taking the budget incredibly seriously. Members of the finance committees, they are working late hours, working with agencies to determine the best way we can formulate a budget that will truly move the state forward. That’s our goal.”
Armstead said he doesn’t think it shows courage to address taxes but instead what role government takes.
“It’s been said that it takes courage to raise taxes … I think it shows courage to look at government to decide what role it takes, what its role should be and what we can afford to do. … That’s what we’ve failed to do over the years.
“Stay tuned the next 30 days. I think you’ll see this state move forward,” Armstead said.
However, Justice had a different view on courage.
“Today, you’ve got a basket full of Democrats who are willing to step out and lay aside being Democrats and be West Virginians. We don’t need to cut people more. We’ve got to raise taxes. It takes courage to do that because constituents may throw rocks at you.”
He mentioned a “basket full of Republicans” who feel the same way but took issue with needing more cuts.
“Every time you do something that cuts, it’s a family,” Justice said. “It’s somebody. That somebody may well decide to go to Tennessee and our revenues get even smaller.”
“How does it make sense, ‘If Justice will go along with these $200 million in cuts, then we could be there with him’?” he later added. “I want to be on the record. Justice would go along with 1,000 percent cuts of any waste that is unnecessary. But it’s almost sadistic to think if we can just kill a few people and hurt a few more, then we can all go along with it. It’s nuts to say we need 14 scalps and if we get those, then we can go along with it.”
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