By ANDREA LANNOM
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — No matter how southern West Virginia lawmakers felt about the budget itself, they had one thing in common.
Most of the legislators interviewed were not shocked about the governor’s decision to veto the budget passed on the last night of the session.
They differed on whether the House, the Senate, and the governor’s office would be able to quickly come up with a solution without going into a lengthy session. Most did express optimism that the three parties would be able to figure out something in an expedient fashion. However, some worried about a possible government shutdown.
The last night of the regular session, both chambers passed House Bill 2018, which reflected negotiations between the two bodies.
Under the bill, the budget was set at $4.102 billion in general revenue spending. It cut $60 million from the current budget and was $85 million shy of the 2016 fiscal year budget.
Delegate Kayla Kessinger, R-Fayette, said she was disappointed with the veto, saying in her view, the budget was balanced and responsible.
“We passed a balanced budget that didn’t raise taxes on citizens and got spending under control,” she said. “We did what the people of West Virginia sent us there to do. I was disappointed he (the governor) would take the position of taking my way or the highway. He was not willing to compromise in any way.”
Delegate Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, disagreed, saying the budget was “technically flawed, structurally unsound and fiscally irresponsible.”
“The governor made his intentions well known early on and stated many times what he would do with a budget that didn’t fix the problem or cut too deep,” he said. “This budget did both. This left him with little alternative. I was not surprised nor should anyone else by his decision to veto. This was my concern from day one and why I was so vocal for a plan throughout the regular session.”
Sen. Greg Boso, R-Nicholas, said although he wasn’t surprised, he was disappointed.
“The budget provided was a compromise between the Senate and the House that funded government for the state of West Virginia,” he said.
Sen. Ron Miller, D-Greenbrier, said he didn’t think the governor had any choice but to veto the budget. Miller mentioned the effective date, in particular.
“It was unconstitutional,” he said. “It was out of balance. It left a flaw of eight days. We didn’t have any budget for those eight days. It didn’t go into effect until July 8.”
Gov. Jim Justice vetoed the budget last week, leaving no question how he felt about it. He called the budget a “bunch of bull-you-know-what,” taking the lid off a silver serving tray to reveal a cow patty atop the budget bill.
In his veto, Justice mentioned concerns about the cuts to DHHR and higher education. He also said he was concerned about the $90 million taken from the Rainy Day Fund.
Many legislators said they didn’t like the way the governor vetoed the budget.
“I know he is a folksy person who tries to be relatable to the people of West Virginia,” Kessinger said, “but I literally had friends from out of state call me and ask me, ‘What is going on with your governor? I saw what happened on the BBC.’ That, to me, doesn’t reflect well on our state. He consistently said he wants to help West Virginia get over the snide remarks about our state and he does the exact opposite in his press conference.”
Boso said he was surprised after seeing the press conference.
“I would have expected a greater level of decorum by the governor but unfortunately, he chose to do it in his own way. … In my opinion, it’s degrading to the people of West Virginia and at a time when we need to make sure we get a good image out and a message out to attract business and industry into the state.”
Delegate Roy Cooper, R-Summers, said he felt this action could make it harder to work as a team in the future.
“These kinds of theatrics make it hard for legislators to be part of his team,” he said. “Sometimes you resort to name calling when you simply don’t know what to do. You come on the field of a sports event and the other team comes back with name calling and sometimes that reflects nervousness with what you are to do. And I forgive him for that. I have a feeling he didn’t know the first month or so what to do but by now, he needs to know to sit down in a gentlemanly fashion and talk to leadership.”
Delegate Ricky Moye, D-Raleigh, who said he wasn’t surprised about the veto, didn’t object to the press conference.
“I didn’t find it offensive,” Moye said. “He was just making a point and using props to do it.”
Leadership in both chambers and Justice’s office will work to find common ground to start negotiations before going into a special session.
Disagreements of what the budget should entail are a known quantity. The governor has said the state needs additional revenues to avoid job losses and to fund needed initiatives. However, House and Senate leadership have said the governor’s budget includes taxes that legislators won’t support.
Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, said he thinks the biggest question going forward concerns taxes.
“The real question is are we going to have an additional tax? And if we have that additional tax, who is going to get taxed? Those in southern West Virginia are under stiff circumstances with the continuation of the tolls on the governor’s highway plan.”
Moye agreed that taxes would be the biggest issue.
“There is a group that is just dug in and adamantly opposed to doing it and I can respect their opinion,” he said. “Some folks have an ideology and they’re sticking to it and I respect anyone doing what they believe in but at the same time, that’s creating a problem for the rest of the state and I think the two choices are do we want to do what no one really wants to do and raise some taxes so that we’ll have an opportunity to grow our economy, fund higher education, K-12 and do all the things that we need to do to move the state forward? Or do we pass a budget without any increases and keep the status quo and stagnation in our economy?”
Cooper mentioned concerns about cuts, especially to higher education.
“The bottom line is we have to cut, I know, but we also need to figure out a way to increase revenue coming in. Hopefully, they will have that before us whenever we go so everyone can get over our nervousness and over the name calling and the theatrics.”
Delegate George Ambler, R-Greenbrier, also mentioned concerns over cuts.
“I’m concerned a little bit obviously with where we are going with some of the cuts,” he said. “No one likes to raise taxes but I believe everywhere I’ve been and people I’ve talked to are willing to pay a little more to get us out of this mess. Any taxes that would have been proposed ought to have a sunset date.”
Bates said he hopes negotiations will include action on road funding and road plans.
“Without an investment in infrastructure and the jobs that come with it, we will be right back in the same mess again next year.”
House and Senate leadership have previously mentioned tax measures as a possible area they hope is included in the final budget. Senate President Mitch Carmichael said he hopes lowering the income tax will be included. House Speaker Tim Armstead, however, previously said lowering the sales tax rate and broadening the base of that sales tax could be up for discussion. Armstead mentioned concerns with lowering the income tax and what that would do especially for border counties.
Moye mentioned concerns with tax measures that went through the House and Senate. He said his biggest concern is eliminating the income tax, saying he fears it will shift the burden to middle-class and lower-income families.
“That’s problematic to me,” he said. “I think everyone needs to have their fair share in supporting functions in state government.”
A date for the special session has not yet been set. Many lawmakers were optimistic that leadership would be able to come to a solution.
Cooper said he is confident that legislative leadership and the governor will be able to come to a resolution.
“I think this will happen rather quickly because the governor is a business man who knows the value of time,” he said.
Boso said he hopes all three parties can come together to pass a budget expeditiously.
“Whether we shut down the state is in big part on whether the governor chooses to not accept the reasoned approaches of those individual representatives of the Legislature who are directly accountable to the local citizenry,” Boso said. “They obviously have a closer finger on the pulse of the people whom they serve and know what the governor wants but at this point, the senators and delegates serve very closely with people in their local communities.
“We are not going to give him an open checkbook that he wants,” he said.
Miller said lawmakers must find a solution and that shutting down isn’t an option.
“We have to find a solution,” he said. “It’s a necessity. It’s an absolute. Shutdown is just not. It’s devastating to the state. It’s devastating to working men and women to the state. I don’t think it’s the governor’s desire to shut down. I do believe his desire is to look for the best solution to move us forward and not to set us back. I believe he will be willing to compromise on this. He’s willing to give up ideas he has if it moves us forward. I hope none of us want to go backwards.”
Bates said he didn’t see much of a difference in the atmosphere from the previous year and said he felt a government shutdown could be a possibility.
“I’m not an alarmist but there are significant differences on policy approaches and no real consensus in either legislative body or with the governor’s office, the Republican leadership or rank-and-file members. That is why I believe that a government shutdown in whole or in part is a real possibility. It may take this or the imminent threat of it to get a deal done. We came within two weeks last year. I don’t see anything that indicates that it is going to be easier or better.”
See more from The Register-Herald