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Legislature passes budget reflecting cuts, no agreement on revenue

By Andrea Lannom

The Register-Herald of Beckley

 

CHARLESTON, W.Va. —A day of marathon floor sessions ended with the West Virginia Legislature passing a budget with several cuts after lawmakers found no common ground on a revenue bill that Gov. Jim Justice had envisioned in one of his newest plans.

Both chambers passed the budget, which represented the House’s vision from earlier that week with a few changes, around midnight before they both adopted a resolution to adjourn the Legislature until June 26.

The House concurred to the Senate’s changes in a 55-31 vote and passed the bill in a 64-25 vote.

The House majority leader called it a win for the most part but many House and Senate democrats were concerned about how the numbers add up in the next few years and how cuts to higher education would affect students.

The day leading up to the passage was marked with back-and-forth on a tax bill, particularly on personal income tax reductions and increases to the sales tax, which the House as a majority did not want to adopt.

Earlier Friday, the House inserted its conference committee report, which failed after Senate Republican members did not sign it, into the Senate’s revenue bill. Notable differences included taking out personal income tax reductions and the increase to sales tax.

The Senate had passed the revenue plan Thursday after the governor held a meeting unveiling the new plan. Some lawmakers walked out of the meeting, citing the presence of lobbyists and “bullying” as reasons for frustrations.

In Thursday’s floor session, when Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer, spoke in favor of inserting that conference committee report, he mentioned that meeting with the governor.

“If we don’t stand up now, the same tactics we experienced yesterday will continue. … For those not in the room, it’s hard to describe how disgusting that performance was,” Shott said. “You probably heard that those who attended were berated publicly in front of important people and were pushed around. Our colleagues on the other side of the aisle were treated very dishonorably.”

The House’s amended tax bill passed in a 67-22 vote and was sent to the Senate.

The next day, the Senate took up a budget bill the House passed earlier in the week, making a few changes. When the House originally passed this budget, the two goals were to avoid sharper cuts to Medicaid and higher education.

The budget rearranged line items, such as surplus funds from the lottery, excess lottery and took about $12 million from the Senate’s savings account to fill in some of the effects to Medicaid.

The budget stood at $4.225 billion, spending $85 million less than the current fiscal year. It did not cut the K-12 school aid formula and did not cut Medicaid health care waiver programs that benefit the elderly or disabled residents.

The budget did not include funding for the Save Our State fund, teacher pay raises or tourism increases, as contemplated by the governor.

The bill cut the entire budget for the Women’s Commission. It also made some cuts to the Division of Culture and History and West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

Senate democrats expressed concern that the budget would put West Virginia deep in deficit in the out years.

House members, including Delegate Rodney Miller, D-Boone, said they didn’t like the cuts to higher education.

“We are running our most valuable resource out of West Virginia,” Miller said. “We in this chamber are sending the message that we don’t care.”

House Majority Leader Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, described the budget as a win for the most part.

“We won the day for the most part with the budget,” he said. “If they’re not going to take the revenue measure, then higher education is going to take a bigger cut and disappointingly so.”

In a press release issued shortly after the passage of the budget bill, House Speaker Tim Armstead said the balanced budget “lives within our means and prevents a government shutdown.” In the news release, Armstead urged the governor to sign the bill.

“Though this budget is much less than the governor had originally proposed, it is balanced without saddling our hard-working citizens with a heavy new tax burden. More importantly, it represents the only viable pathway to avoid a government shutdown on July 1,” Armstead said. “I urge Governor Justice to sign this budget so we can ease our citizens’ fears, ensure government services continue without interruption and avoid layoffs or furloughs of our state employees.”

The bill now heads to the governor for approval or veto. In a one-on-one interview earlier this week, Justice was considering his options — none of them to his liking. In the Wednesday interview, Justice said if the bill had come to him that day with the proposed cuts in the Senate’s plan, which is different than what ultimately passed, he would veto it. However, if the bill came to him days before a government shutdown, Justice said he didn’t know what he would do.

“To shut the government down would be catastrophic beyond belief,” Justice said Wednesday.

— Email: [email protected]; follow on Twitter @AndreaLannom

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