Legislature, Justice still battling over finances
By JOSELYN KING
The Wheeling News-Register
WHEELING, W.Va. — Early Sunday morning the West Virginia House of Delegates passed the state’s 2018 spending bill — setting the stage for a probable budgetary fight with Gov. Jim Justice and a special legislative session in the coming days.
House Bill 2018 plants next year’s state spending at $4.1 billion — a rate equal to projected revenues for this year. It cuts spending by more than $140 million, and sets aside $90 million from the Rainy Day emergency reserve fund to balance the budget.
The Senate had inserted their own budget bill into HB 2018 and passed it with a vote of 22-12 just before the legislative session officially ended Saturday night. Because Justice had extended the regular session by one day for purposes only pertaining to the budget, House members opted to pick up the bill after midnight, and approved HB 2018 with a 64-36 vote. Members in both chambers largely voted along party lines.
Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, said it was his understanding as he left the Capitol Saturday night that the House had adjourned, and was not taking up the budget bill passed by the Senate.
“Then I got a text message when I got back to the apartment telling me the House had passed the budget, and I thought somebody was confused,” he said.
“I had no idea that was their contention. I don’t think anybody did.”
Ferns said an issue with the bill passed early Sunday morning is that the House has not passed Senate Bill 609, which would have allowed school districts to raise their levy rates to the maximum allowed by the constitution. This would have paved the way for the state to reduce the school aid formula funding by 5 percent, freeing $79 million for the state coffers.
The budget bill approved does not make up for that $79 million, according to Ferns.
Among its provisions, the measure cuts Medicaid funding, from $490 million to $350 million. Funding to public broadcasting is reduced by $1 million.
And West Virginia’s state colleges and universities also get their own line items in the budget bill that was passed, according to Delegate Erikka Storch, R-Ohio. Included is $96 million for West Virginia University; $42 million for Marshall University; and locally, $7 million for West Liberty University.
All state colleges and universities would get a 4-percent budget cut under the bill — with WVU and Marshall experiencing an additional 8 percent, amounting to a total 12 percent decrease in funding, she said.
Prior to the budget bill’s passage late Saturday and early Sunday, a jubilant Justice had announced a budget deal that would retain some money for his $105 million “Save Our State” initiative, make no cuts to higher education or to secondary school education and provide for a 2 percent pay raise for teachers.
According to Justice, the deal also would have raised taxes to create an additional $300 million to $400 million in revenue.
Republicans in the House say Justice’s words caught them off guard, and that Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, informed them he was not aware of any budget deal being struck with Justice.
“I’m just glad they didn’t go through with raising taxes,”Delegate Patrick McGeehan, R-Hancock, said. “We have to go through with making decisions about reducing the size of government — we just have to make the right decisions.
“I don’t care for the haste of throwing things together at the last minute.”
He, Storch and Ferns all expect the Democrat Justice to veto the GOP budget bill and call for a special session before the current budget year expires on July 1.
Democrat Shawn Fluharty of Ohio County agrees.
“It’s another year, and another fictional budget,” he said. “Leadership had 60 days for their supposed innovative budget, and at the 11th hour rolled more of the same — that being big cuts to higher education and dipping into the Rainy Day Fund again.
“The Governor understands we can’t continue to repeat history and I am confident he will veto this budget.”
All local senators voted in favor of HB 2018 in the Senate late Saturday night: Ferns; Ryan Weld, R-Brooke; Mike Maroney, R-Marshall; and Charles Clements, R-Wetzel.
Delegates voting in favor on Saturday morning included Storch; McGeehan; and Roger Romine, R-Tyler. Voting in opposition were Fluharty; Phil Diserio, D-Brooke, Joe Canastaro and Mike Ferro, both D-Marshall; and David Pethel, D-Wetzel.