By LACIE PIERSON
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — There’s no shortage of reports about the budget talks among Democrat Gov. Jim Justice and GOP-majority leaders from the Senate and House of Delegates in the Mountain State.
Whether any of the involved parties are listening to one another is a different report altogether.
West Virginia citizens will learn Thursday whether lawmakers talking the talk will lead to their walking the walk toward a resolution about a $450 million difference in budget proposals for fiscal year 2018 when the 83rd West Virginia Legislature convenes for a special session Thursday, May 4.
More than anything, local lawmakers shared a sense of uncertainty and ambiguous understanding about what budget proposals were carrying the most support heading into Thursday, with some House members expressing lingering frustration with the rapport, or lack thereof, between some House members and Justice.
Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Cabell, and Del. Carol Miller, R-Cabell, both serve on the finance committees in their respective chambers and have been privy to the conversations among legislative and executive leaders.
Plymale said he understood there remains a tentative deal between the governor and Senate leaders.
The deal includes a sales tax increase that would sunset in two or three years as well as cuts to higher education that would equate to a 4.4 percent cut to Marshall University and a 2 percent cut to Mountwest Community and Technical College.
He also said there are parts of the governor’s roads plan the Legislature could enact without having to put the question before voters, including increasing Department of Motor Vehicles fees and the state gasoline tax.
The Legislature approved a measure during the session, Senate Joint Resolution 6, which allows for a special election to allow voters to decide whether they want to incur those costs in order to support the repair and construction of roads in the state, as opposed to lawmakers deciding whether to increase the fees.
That said, Plymale said nothing could be certain when legislators return to Charleston on Thursday.
“It’s so hard to gauge anymore,” Plymale said. “It’s my understanding that the House is not fully on board. It could take a day. It could take five days. It, unfortunately, could take as long as last year. It’s my understanding the governor has a proposal that has some agreement, but I don’t really know what that ‘some agreement’ really means.”
Plymale said he also remained concerned about how budget cuts would affect the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine, which does not receive any other state support like West Virginia University Health. In addition to higher education funding, WVU Health receives about $15 million annually in revenue from the state’s pop tax.
Miller also said she was worried about funding for Marshall, and she didn’t provide specifics about any tentative legislation but said she was hopeful for an efficient session that moves the state forward.
Miller said Tuesday was the first day she and House leaders met with Justice, but there had been other meetings between House leadership and Justice’s executive staff. Plymale said he knew of at least 10 meetings between Justice and Senate majority leaders.
Without an official legislative call from the governor on record, Miller said it will be difficult to know for sure what Justice will ask of legislators Thursday.
“I’m hopeful we can get this over with and move the state forward,” Miller said Tuesday. “I would imagine there will be a bill to come over from the Senate. I believe there are other bills that might be considered as well that were missed at the end of the session for one reason or another.”
Del. Matt Rohrbach, R-Cabell, said he thought it would take a while to bridge the budget-theory gap between Justice and House leaders.
“The governor seems fairly insistent on tax increases, and the House doesn’t seem to be inclined to go along with them at this point,” Rohrbach said. “The good news is we’re seeing some signs of life in the coal industry and severance money has been up. All that being said, there’s still a budget gap, and that gap is going to have to be closed through a combination of cuts and new revenue.”
Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, said the budget situation heading into Thursday was “the personification of fluidity,” and he felt like anything could happen.
“It seems to change every few days, the different ideas,” Woelfel said. “I don’t know how anybody could pick a hard position on a budget presentation until we actually have a budget presentation. … It doesn’t seem like we’re any closer to a deal than the night the session ended.”
Del. Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell, expressed her frustration that stemmed from the budget deal between Justice and Senate leaders to which House leaders weren’t privy.
“I think it’s hard to find consensus when a certain segment of the equation is being purposely shut out,” Sobonya said. “We have a bicameral legislative body, where we have two different houses. The governor seems to think he’s the governor of a state with a unicameral legislature and he only has to communicate with one body. That’s not the way it works.”
Del. Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, said he was most concerned about passing a budget that doesn’t increase cuts to higher education, but he also was concerned about the productivity of the session when the legislative and executive branches seemed so far apart.
“I am behind our governor; however, I think the time frame given, what it appears to be, we will be in special session longer than this weekend,” Hornbuckle said. “Both sides, in my opinion, are quite a ways apart right now, and we need to figure some things out between legislators while we’re not in session before we go back at the cost of taxpayers.”
Del. Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell, still is in his first term as a legislator. He said he wasn’t sure what to anticipate during the special session based on his experience during the regular session.
“It’s my hope people don’t come fully entrenched and are willing to at least hear each other out and come across party lines and strive to reach some kind of consensus and resolution long before we get near any kind of shutdown,” Lovejoy said.
Del. Chuck Romine, R-Cabell, said he expected a tough special session no matter how long it lasts, and he also said he thought the means of the April 8 budget deal between Justice and the Senate “wasn’t right.”
“I really feel somewhere between the governor’s proposal and our proposal is where we’ll end up, whether that takes two days or two weeks,” Romine said. “I hope in two days we can negotiate across the table and come up with a budget that’s acceptable for everyone. That’s the intention I have going up there.”
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