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Budget theatrics rise as WV legislative session nears end

By PHIL KABLER

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — On a day when the West Virginia House and Senate each advanced versions of the 2017-18 budget bill that would cut spending on state programs and services, following heated partisan floor debate, Gov. Jim Justice declared Wednesday that the session has “spiraled into crazy land.”

As required by the state Constitution, Justice on Wednesday signed a proclamation to extend the 60-day session to continue work on the budget — but only by one day, lamenting that it looks unlikely that there will be a budget agreement by then.

 “We’re not going to get a budget, or we’re surely not going to get a budget that has any sense to it,” Justice said during a news event where he was backed by all Democrat members of the House of Delegates.

Justice has indicated that he will veto either of the legislative budget plans, if they reach his desk.

“The budgets that are proposed by the House and Senate, both are budgets that will hurt the state, slow us down more and absolutely, without question, will hurt a lot of people,” said Justice, who displayed a mayonnaise sandwich and a “nothing-burger” — two buns with no meat — to illustrate his disdain for the legislative budget proposals.

The West Virginia Constitution requires the governor to issue a proclamation extending the legislative session to complete work on the state budget, if the bill has not been passed by the 57th day of the session. Traditionally, governors initially extend the session by three days, but Justice sent a message Wednesday by extending the session only through Sunday.

“In one day, we ought to be able to get everything done,” Justice said. “Why should the people pay for us to be here when we’ve been here for 60 days?”

Justice credited House Democrats — Senate Democrats were on the floor debating the budget bill at the time — for showing their unified support for his budget plan, and for being willing to cross a “political taboo” by supporting tax increases.

Justice’s proposal calls for a $4.394 billion general revenue budget, requiring passage of $224 million in new taxes that he has said is spread among business, consumers and the wealthy.

That’s in contrast to the Senate’s budget bill, which passed Wednesday on a 20-14 vote, with Republican Sens. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, and Jeff Mullins, R-Raleigh, joining Senate Democrats in opposition (SB 199). It sets a $4.102 billion budget, with no tax increases but with $160 million in what Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, R-Putnam, described as “pretty draconian” cuts.

The Senate plan would cut spending by about 3.5 percent, overall, with higher education taking a 15 percent cut.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, left the podium Wednesday to address the spending cuts.

“You have to make the hard choices. Certainly, we could chose to raise taxes and continue to overspend,” he said. “That’s not the right path, in my opinion.”

The House on Wednesday passed its version of the budget (HB 2018), which sets a $4.24 billion budget, making more than $50 million in spending cuts, while incorporating $137 million in new tax revenue from a bill that would eliminate some sales tax exemptions in existing law (SB 484).

That bill would make a number of services subject to sales taxes, including telecommunications services like cellphone and land-line telephones, a variety of personal services and on business-to-business sales of transportation and communications services. It passed the House Wednesday on a 52-48 vote.

Proponents of that plan say the broadening of the tax base will allow the state to lower its sales tax rate, beginning in 2018.

“I believe it is the fair thing to do for the people of West Virginia,” said Delegate Bill Anderson, R-Wood. “Broadening the tax base will stabilize the tax base.”

Critics argued that, no matter how the bill is framed, it amounts to a tax increase, and one that puts a burden on consumers, instead of businesses.

“Let’s be honest with the people of West Virginia, this is a tax increase,” said Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton. “It is a burden for the working people of West Virginia.”

During his news conference, Justice cited polling showing support for his budget plan.

He didn’t identify the poll but, earlier Wednesday, the Protect West Virginia advocacy group released a poll conducted by Anzalone Liszt Grove Research showing that 70 percent of state voters polled said they are willing to pay more taxes to maintain public schools and public safety, and for better roads.

Suggesting there is little public support for the legislative budget plans, Justice said of legislative leadership, “I would recommend to them that they get themselves a dog, because they can’t find a friend.”

See more from the Charleston Gazette-Mail

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