By DANYEL VANREENEN
MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — The state representatives of the Eastern Panhandle gathered at the Holiday Inn in Martinsburg on Thursday morning for the annual Legislative wrap-up forum.
Although the representatives are home after the end of the regular session, the governor has called them back to Charleston on May 4 to solve the issue of the budget — a major topic at Thursday’s forum.
Community business leaders and citizens interacted over breakfast, then representatives took the floor for five minutes each to discuss things that happened in Charleston since they took office in January.
Hans Fogle, news director of WEPM, acted as moderator during the program, and 12 representatives from the Eastern Panhandle presented their accomplishments and the challenges of this year’s Legislative session.
The budget was one of the biggest topics for representatives. According to delegates and senators alike, the budget was the primary concern for everyone in Charleston during the regular 60 day session.
According to Delegate Mike Folk, R-Berkeley, the most recent session was one of the most interesting — for good and bad.
Despite a difference of opinions and partisanship on certain budget issues, Folk believes there is an effective way to solve the budget debate.
“There are ways and avenues to creating a budget without hurting those on the front lines,” Folk said, referring to taxpayers in the state.
Delegate and majority leader Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, said there were a lot of new faces this session.
“These guys do a lot for you, and we’ve seen a lot of fresh talent,”Cowles said.
According to Cowles, the budget Gov. Jim Justice vetoed had solved $300 million of an approximately $400 million projected budget gap. The House wanted to compensate the remaining gap by creating tax reforms to capture revenue up front. In addition, Cowles said the bill vetoed by Justice used $90 million from the state’s rainy day fund and made cuts to offset the gap.
Cowles said he’s taking an open-minded approach to solving the problem. For example, Cowles is willing to consider tax reforms and other ideas as long as it creates a structurally balanced system for the future, implements a fair tax system and is able to return an investment for taxpayers.
Despite the challenges of agreeing on a beneficial budget, Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, believes West Virginia has reached a turning point. Not only were the House and Senate able to draft budgets within the 60 day session, they were able to mutually pass a plan onto the governor’s desk by the end of the regular session — a feat that does not always happen, according to Trump.
“There are signs for optimism in West Virginia,” Trump said. “The revenues for March were above projection, and we’re seeing coal barges on the Kanawha River for the first time in years.”
However, Trump is still pushing for budget cuts throughout the state.
“There will be cuts in this budget, and they should be everywhere,”Trump said.
However, Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, disagrees with the majority Republican leadership.
“We need to live within our means, but we also need means with which to live,” Unger said.
Unger expressed his objections to using a proposed $90 million from the rainy day fund and the proposed cuts to Medicaid. Counting the federal match, Unger said the proposed budget cut approximately $200 million in Medicaid, and he was concerned about the effects the cuts would have on the health care industry in the state.
During question and answer, Trump argued that the state cannot sustain the current size of Medicaid, which has grown to $4.5 million.
“One in three West Virginians are using the system,” Trump said. “We must get people off, and one way we can do that is by ratcheting back the benefits.”
Meanwhile, Delegate Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, said it’s perfectly acceptable for lawmakers to use the rainy day funds to compensate for shortfalls. However, Householder said the state can’t continue increasing the budget.
“We’ve seen the budget increase by putting today’s costs in tomorrow’s budget,” Householder said. “The people deserve better than high taxes the governor is proposing. The bottomline is to embrace controls and rightsize the government.”
Although some lawmakers are optimistic about the special session next week, Delegate S. Marshall Wilson, R-Berkeley, believes the House leadership will cave to Justice’s demands, despite his disapproval.
Delegate Jason Barrett, D-Berkeley, is in the minority, but he disapproves of the Democratic governor’s bold tax increases as well.
“The governor proposed a bold plan, but I’m not supportive of the heavy taxes,” Barrett said.
Barrett said the governor’s proposal would disproportionately affect lower income and middle class families. Justice proposed a 20 percent decrease in income taxes and increases in other areas, alongside a reduction of tax exemptions.
For individuals making $200,000 a year, Barrett said they would save approximately $2,500 to $2,600 in personal income taxes, which would balance out the increases in other areas. However, for individuals making $35,000 to $40,000 a year, they would only save $300 to $500 per year, which is not enough to balance out other increases.
“We cannot have a tax plan relying solely on the backs of the middle class,” Barrett said. “It makes the disparity worse.”
Despite the disagreements, Barrett said it’s important for representatives to build relationships with one another and put their egos aside.
“You can disagree, but not be disagreeable,” Barrett said.
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