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Opinion: At the Capitol — Session ends with budget drama

By Phil Kabler

For the West Virginia Press Association

Final hours of the 2017 regular session were marked with drama, including a last-minute blockbuster announcement from Gov. Jim Justice that a deal was near on the budget bill that would avoid major cuts to public education, higher education, and health programs, but the session ultimately frizzled out as the clock struck midnight.

After seemingly little progress to get a compromise on the 2017-18 budget bill throughout the day Saturday, Justice announced at a 10 p.m. press conference that a deal was close that would avoid spending cuts, through a combination of a 1 percent increase in sales taxes, a gross receipts tax on businesses, and a surcharge on West Virginians with incomes of $200,000 or more.

He said the agreement also included a 2 percent pay raise for teachers and “a little bit of money” for his Save our State program to recruit business investment to the state.

“We’re not there yet, but I really believe we’re right on the cusp of an agreement,” he said.

However, with less than two hours to get the proposal through both the Senate and House – where leadership apparently had little input on negotiations with Justice – the compromise plan broke down.

“We have the framework for an agreement, but parts of it are fraying,” Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, commented shortly after Justice’s press conference, while leaving House chambers.

Instead, the Legislature passed late Saturday night and early Sunday morning a $4.1 billion budget bill that cuts spending by more than $140 million and raids the Rainy Day emergency reserve fund for $90 million to balance the budget – a bill which almost certainly is headed for a veto by Justice, setting up a special session on the budget at some point before the new budget year begins on July 1.

Asked earlier in the session if he would veto a similar version of the budget, Justice said, “In a millisecond.”

The budget bill theatrics marked the end of a regular session that likely will be most remembered for the surprise emergence and passage of legislation legalizing medical marijuana, beginning in 2018.

Despite all indications that there was little likelihood that legislative leadership had any interest in the bill, freshmen Sen. Richard Ojeda, D-Logan, never relented, giving weekly floor speeches and cajoling colleagues to take up the bill, which he said would provide relief to combat veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The Senate took up the bill late in the session, passing it on a 28-6 vote on March 29, the last day the Senate could act on Senate bills. Even then, there seemed little prospect that House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, who has long opposed legalizing marijuana, would fast-track the bill in the House.

Undeterred, Ojeda told the Senate, “You know what? It’s time. It’s time for our state to open up our eyes and our minds and realize you know, if it’s a gateway drug, it’s a gateway out of opioid addiction, and it’s a gateway for people to have a better life that only have a little bit of time left.”

When the bill reached the House, it was to be referred to two committees – a potentially insurmountable challenge with just nine days remaining in the session – but responding to a massive grassroots campaign of phone calls and e-mails, the House made a rare vote to discharge the bill from committee, sending it to the House floor.

After giving House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, the weekend to review the bill, the House ultimately passed a bill that made some significant changes, notably banning smoking and requiring that marijuana be administered in pill, oil, topical or other forms, and the Senate concurred, sending the bill to the governor.

Since the bill will not take effect until July 1, 2018, proponents are hopeful the legislation may be modified in the 2018 session.

The session didn’t end as well for a number of other bills.

Bills sought by Justice to raise road construction and maintenance funds by increasing the gas tax and DMV fees and by allowing the state Parkways Authority to sell additional bonds to be paid off by turnpike tolls died in the House Finance Committee, while the House also failed to take up a bill favored by the natural gas industry to require minority interest owners of mineral rights to permit drilling if owners of three-fourths of the mineral rights approve drilling. A similar bill was defeated on the House floor on the final night of the 2015 session in a rare tie vote.


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