Government, Latest News

Legislators adjourn without taking up state employee furlough bill


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — After 21 days over seven-and-a-half weeks, the special session of the Legislature came to an unceremonious end Monday — with one key issue left in limbo.

The special session of the Legistlature ended Monday.
(File photo by Chris Dorst)

The House and Senate adjourned sine die after brief floor sessions Monday morning with legislation to give the governor authority to furlough state employees in the event of future budget crises stuck in a House-Senate conference committee.

“We had a couple of outstanding issues that we just hadn’t had a meeting of the minds on,” said House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, co-chairman of the conference committee.

Unresolved issues, he said, included whether “nonessential” employees who are not required to report to work during government shutdowns would receive back pay once the shutdown ended.

Another issue was a House proposal to permit furloughs of up to 30 days to address mid-year “fiscal emergencies,” in addition to furloughs in the event of a July 1 partial state government shutdown if no budget bill is enacted by the start of the new fiscal year.

Extended budget impasses this year and last year that pushed passage of the budget bills into mid-June heightened concerns about the potential for a partial shutdown of state government.

Current law does not provide any mechanism to continue government operations past July 1 if the new fiscal year budget bill has not been enacted by that date.

In addition to the apparent inability to make bond payments or pay vendors, a shutdown would mean public employees would effectively be terminated on July 1 and would have to be rehired once a new budget takes effect, potentially costing them health insurance coverage, seniority and other benefits.

“We have to prepare for the worst-case scenario, and if that day comes, I want to ensure all of our state workers are protected,” Gov. Jim Justice said on May 15 when he introduced the bill. “It’s not right for our state workforce to lose their health insurance coverage or see their benefits disappear on July 1 if there is no budget in place. This bill needs to pass in order to safeguard state employees.”

House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, and Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said deliberations on the furlough bill will continue during monthly legislative interim meetings, which will begin in August with the goal of having legislation ready when the 2018 regular session convenes in January.

“We found there are not the necessary procedures and mechanisms in place were we to ever reach July 1 without a budget,” Armstead said. “We should have them in place.”

“We do believe the state should have a furlough policy, but it is, fortunately, not necessary at this moment,” Carmichael added.

Having passed a $4.225 billion budget bill June 16, the Legislature had recessed the special session to Monday to regroup had Justice opted to veto that plan.

On Wednesday, Justice called a news conference to denounce the budget bill — which imposes $130 million of spending cuts — calling it a “travesty.” However, he announced he would allow it to become law without his signature, effective Saturday, since calling the Legislature back to work on an alternate plan would have assured a government shutdown.

Armstead said Monday he disagrees with Justice’s assessment of the budget bill.

“I think constantly asking us to consider a proposal that we all knew wasn’t going anywhere was a travesty and a waste of taxpayers’ money,” Armstead said.

Beginning April 8, on the last night of the regular session, Justice threw his support to a Senate Republican plan to pair an increase in the state sales tax with a phase-down of income taxes, which they billed as a tax reform plan.

While the plan would have increased revenue for the 2017-18 budget, primarily because the sales tax increase would have taken effect six months before the income tax reductions, the House, along with Senate Democrats, raised concerns about the fiscal soundness of the proposal. At one point, the House rejected the Senate proposal on a bipartisan 85-0 vote.

House Republicans put forward alternatives to raise revenue, mainly to “broaden the base” by eliminating various sales tax exemptions in current law, but could not persuade Justice or Senate Republicans to support any of those options.

“If the people are frustrated that we are here almost to July, I think that frustration should be directed at the fact there was a proposal out there that we said was not going to win the approval of the House,” Armstead said.

“We are here because there was insistence on a plan that wasn’t going to pass by the Senate and the governor,” he added.

Carmichael, meanwhile, noted that when the regular session began in February, Justice had originally proposed about $450 million of tax increases.

“We were able to convince him that was wrong for a state in a fiscal crisis to raise taxes on its citizens,” Carmichael said. “We ultimately convinced the governor to come on board with tax reductions in the out years in the form of tax reform. Unfortunately, it did not get across the finish line.”

Carmichael said he considers it “an achievement” that the Legislature passed a budget with no tax increases.

“This characterization of it as being a horrible, devastating budget is just not correct. The fact is, we spent about 99 percent of what we spent last year,” he said.

The $4.225 billion general revenue budget is actually about 3 percent smaller than the $4.36 billion budget for 2016-17.

Both Carmichael and Armstead said, barring a notable resurgence in the state economy, the Legislature will face another major budget shortfall for 2018-19, and both said upcoming legislative interim meetings need to focus on ways to further reduce state spending.

“I believe we need to spend the next six months working very hard on finding ways to make further reductions and to make our government run more efficiently,” Armstead said.

Generally, each day in special session costs about $35,000 for legislators’ pay and per-day expense payments, which would total about $735,000. However, the Senate did not meet for four days during the special session, having just two members present each day to conduct a quorum call, and with no business pending for Monday’s floor sessions, only 58 of 100 delegates and 18 of 34 senators attended the final day.

See more from the Charleston Gazette-Mail

Comments are closed.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter