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Amid political theatrics, WV budget negotiations to resume Monday

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A renewed battle over next year’s West Virginia budget is drawing near, with no clear path to victory for any of the warring factions.

Gov. Jim Justice on Thursday vetoed a budget approved by both chambers of the Legislature. Now, his aides are planning negotiations with leadership from the House of Delegates and the Senate to try to form something close to a compromise, prior to convening for a pricey special session.

Justice chief of staff Nick Casey said Friday he’s hoping for a special session to last as short as possible, after House and Senate leadership form a “pathway,” or a rough draft, of a budget with Justice.

“If we can get a pathway forward in the next week, then we’d be prepared to call as soon as we got that pathway set up,” he said. “If there’s no pathway forward, my expectation — and it’s up to the governor — my expectation is, until we have a pathway that looks like we can be successful, there’s no reason to call a session and come here and have people sit around and try to work it out. We’d like to work it out in conversation on the front end, and go into session as soon as possible.”

Each day of a special legislative session can cost taxpayers as much as $35,000.

Despite Casey’s optimism, the likelihood of a consensus forming is questionable, given a political climate far short of collegial in the past weeks.

Most Capitol insiders saw Justice’s veto coming from afar. However, Justice called a late-night news conference on the last night of the session to say that he and Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, were close to an unexpected compromise that would combine Justice’s funding initiatives with a Senate plan to phase out income taxes and replace them with a broad-based 7 percent consumption tax.

However, House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, has claimed he was left out of these negotiations entirely, part of the reason the proposal did not make it through the House.

Following that flop, the Legislature passed its now-vetoed $4.102 billion budget that does not increase taxes but cuts public education, higher education and the Department of Health and Human Resources’ budgets and borrows from the state’s Rainy Day fund.

Along with the alleged snub, Justice’s decision to use actual animal fecal matter he’d brought into the Capitol as a metaphor for the Legislature’s budget has rubbed Republicans the wrong way.

Although Armstead declined to comment for this article, House Communications Director Jared Hunt said, communications breakdown aside, the House will not go for the spending increases proposed in the budget Justice and Carmichael worked out.

“The key point is the Speaker does not believe the outcome of a special session will be much different than the budget that passed on the final night of the regular session,” Hunt said Friday in an email. “The House Republican caucus that night [April 8] was strongly against the plan unveiled by the Governor at his 10 p.m. press conference, and yesterday’s ‘poo stunt’ I believe only solidified their opposition to that plan.”

Del. Ron Walters, R-Kanawha, who sits on the House Finance Committee, shared similar thoughts. He said he was disappointed, not just by the veto, but by the charade the negotiations process has turned into.

“Quite frankly, into the future, he’s going to have to be more realistic,” Walters said. “With the name calling and all that, I don’t think he wants to start that stuff and continue down that road. The public thinks it’s distasteful.”

As far as the negotiated budget goes, Walters said that not only does he disagree with leaving House leadership out of the discussions, the state needs a budget it can sustain.

“At some point, the government has to learn to live within its means,” he said. “We all run our houses and have budgets that we run our houses with, and you can’t overspend every year, because, eventually, you go bankrupt.”

Weighing in on the alleged snubbing, Casey said that although Armstead was not brought in on the April 8 discussion, the Justice administration had worked with leadership from both Houses since it took over.

“The Governor’s Office, throughout the session, was reaching out to both houses,” he said. “We thought we had a pathway forward with the House that didn’t turn out to be there. The House may have been left out at the very, very end, only because we had been there and couldn’t get some things figured out with them, so as we turned to the Senate, time evaporates. I hope they don’t complain too loudly they were left out.”

Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, said he had plenty of problems with the Legislature-approved budget but, given the Republican majorities in both chambers, this could be a losing battle for Justice.

“I think the reality is, if the Senate and House can’t agree on a plan with the governor, I think, at a certain point in time, the governor is going to have to consider saying, ‘OK, Senate and House, you guys go ahead and come up with your own plan, and you can own it,’ ” he said.

Although passage only takes a simple majority, a saving grace for Democrats could come in the form of a constitutional rule that says a law does not become effective until 90 days from passage, unless two-thirds of each chamber approve making a bill effective immediately from passage.

Both Palumbo and Casey said this should lead to more Democrats being brought in on conversations to ensure any budget gets enough votes to avoid a lapse in state funding.

Casey said budget negotiations are scheduled to begin again Monday.

Reach Jake Zuckerman at [email protected], 304-348-4814 or follow @jake_zuckerman on Twitter.

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