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Governor’s budget comments spark testy debate in WV House, Senate

By PHIL KABLER

Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice’s call on Tuesday for the Legislature to take action on the state budget crisis in light of West Virginia’s latest bond ratings downgrade — and legislative leadership’s response to that call — lit up both houses in floor debate Wednesday.

House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, and Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, took umbrage at statements made by House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, and Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, that blamed the economic downturn on the “tax-and-spend policies of the past.”

“I’m not sure what tax-and-spend policies are being referred to,” Miley said.

In the Senate, Palumbo elaborated, noting that the Legislature has approved only two tax increases in recent memory, tobacco tax hikes in 2003 and 2016. During that time, the Legislature eliminated the sales tax on food and enacted about $350 million a year in cuts in business taxes.

Palumbo said the public expects results, not name-calling.

“They’re tired of the finger-pointing. They’re tired of the partisan politics,” Palumbo said. “People I’ve talked to don’t like that. They want us to shut up and get our work done, and get this problem solved.”

Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, noted that Justice had stooped to name-calling, referring to legislators as “knuckleheads,” for not embracing his budget proposals, and said he felt betrayed by the governor, whom he said campaigned on no new taxes, but then proposed about $400 million of tax hikes in his budget plan.

“We can’t go to the well and ask our taxpayers for more money when they cannot afford it now, including our governor,” said Blair, waiving a clipping of a news article regarding $4.4 million in liens against Justice-owned companies for unpaid state taxes.

In a news conference Tuesday, Justice lamented the downgrade in the state’s bond rating by Moody’s Investors Service from Aa1 to Aa2, citing a “growing structural imbalance” in the state’s budgets, and admonished the Legislature for failing to address the budget crisis.

House Majority Leader Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, argued that Justice had unreasonably presented the Legislature with a “do this or die” option — providing only his budget plan and an alternative that imposes $450 million in cuts to state agencies, programs and colleges and universities.

“I believe there’s a lot of real estate between the two,” Cowles said.

Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, said legislative leadership had enacted policies, including repeal of prevailing wage, passage of right-to-work and tort reform, on the false promise that those changes would cause new businesses and jobs to pour into the state.

“We’ve tried the reductions. We’ve tried it over and over and over again, and it’s not bringing jobs to West Virginia,” he said.

Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, raised concerns that the Legislature has not offered an alternative budget plan with the regular session passing the one-fourth mark, saying he is fearful of another budget impasse stretching into June, with a July 1 shutdown of state government looming.

“There is no clear path we can see to consensus, because too many people have drawn a line in the sand and said, ‘I will not compromise,’ ” he warned.

Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, R-Putnam, assured senators, though, that his committee is working on a budget plan.

“We’re not just sitting around doing nothing,” he said. “It is a top priority this year.”

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