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Proposed budget bill amendment sparks heated debate in WV Senate


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A day after suggestions of increased optimism over negotiations for a potential compromise on the 2017-18 budget bill, West Virginia Senate leadership tossed in what could be a major setback Tuesday with a proposed amendment to a governor’s bill — an amendment that critics argued was merely intended to get the Senate on record voting against the governor’s previous tax increase proposals.


“It’s a total sham. It’s a political ploy,” Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said of the amendment offered by Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio. “That’s about as low as I’ve seen.”

Ferns argued the amendment, which included many of Gov. Jim Justice’s initial proposals to raise revenue, including a .25 percent increase in the sales tax, a tobacco tax hike and a tax on sugary soft drinks, was merely an opportunity for senators to “let the governor know” where they stand on tax increases.

Senate Democrats contended the proposals were old news, and that budget negotiations are progressing.

On Monday, Justice told the Gazette-Mail he was encouraged by the budget proposal offered in House Finance Committee Saturday, which appropriates about $180 million less than the governor’s plan, but does increase revenue by $215 million to help close a $500 million shortfall in the 2017-18 budget.

“I’m optimistic we’re going to get a deal done,” the governor said Monday.

Ferns, however, said Tuesday he considers budget negotiations to be one-sided, with little input from Senate leadership.

“The governor is willing to negotiate, so long as we accept his plan,” Ferns said, during the lengthy and often heated exchange on the amendment.

“We haven’t been invited,” Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said of negotiations with the governor’s office. “The Senate itself wasn’t involved in any of these negotiations that appear to be going on.”

Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, said the amendment “looks a lot like a political stunt,” and said he could understand that Ferns might be personally offended by some of Justice’s comments earlier in the session — a reference to Justice comparing Ferns to a poodle barking at a grizzly bear.

“I would call a political stunt the red light on the Capitol dome,” Ferns later commented. Last week, Justice ordered the lighting of the state of emergency lantern in the Capitol dome, saying proposed legislative budget cuts would create a health emergency in the state.

Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, said senators should be trying to avoid a repeat of the extended budget impasse last year.

“Here we are again playing petty political games. People’s jobs are at risk. The future of the state is at risk,” he said. “This accomplishes absolutely nothing except divide us further and creates an unbridgeable gap.”

Ferns’ amendment was rejected by a 0-32 margin, with two senators absent. The bill (SB484), which would simply end the annual transfer of $11.7 million of general revenue funds to the state Road Fund, will be on passage stage in the Senate Wednesday.

Justice’s press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the Ferns amendment.

Earlier Tuesday, the House of Delegates soundly defeated by a 39-60 margin a bill that would raise about $14.5 million for the 2017-18 budget, raising the state beer tax by $2.8 million a year, and by stopping the $11.7 million transfer of sales tax dollars to the state Road Fund (HB2816).

The bill also would end in 2018 a $5 million fund that is used to provide tax credits to television and film productions shot on location in-state — a proposal that drew significant opposition Tuesday.

That included delegates from the eastern and northern panhandles, where a number of productions have been filmed or are being filmed.

“This credit has brought an industry into West Virginia,” said Delegate Jason Barrett, D-Berkeley, citing a Discovery Channel production that is currently filming in Martinsburg, along with three other TV shows scheduled for production later in the spring and summer.

“This is anti-jobs,” he said.

Delegate Michael Folk, R-Berkeley, said film crews spend money in the state while filming on location beyond the production expenses that are eligible for the tax credits.

“There’s a lot of money that’s not eligible that’s spent in these places that have these films,” he said, adding, “This sends a really bad message.”

House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, said other states are eliminating their film tax credits, and pointed out that in no year has more than half of the state’s $5 million credit been claimed.

“When we’re talking about the film industry, the beauty of West Virginia will sell it, not a tax credit,” he said.

There are still opportunities to amend the beer tax into active bills, although some of the opposition to the bill Tuesday came from delegates opposed to any tax increases.

“Are we conservatives here? I thought Republicans controlled this chamber,” said Delegate Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, chiding delegates who he said would be going against their no new taxes pledges, and who had called for state government to live within its means.

Wednesday is crossover day in the Legislature, the last day this session that each house can act on bills originating in that house.

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