Senate passes budget bill over Democratic opposition

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, left the podium during debate of the Senate’s budget bill so he could field questions about the proposal. (Photo by Jim Ross)

By JIM ROSS

The State Journal

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The West Virginia State Senate passed its version of a budget bill Wednesday, one that its supporters expect to be amended after the House of Delegates passes its own version, which may happen within the same day.

Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, left the podium during debate of the Senate’s budget bill so he could field questions about the proposal.
(Photo by Jim Ross)

Passage of Senate Bill 199 came on a 20-14 vote after a roughly 90-minute debate that included Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, vacating the chair so he could speak in support of the measure. That was followed by a long series of questions to Carmichael from Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley.

“This budget represents a choice. It’s not an easy choice, but I believe it’s the right choice,” Carmichael said.

Finance Chairman Mike Hall, R-Putnam, began the debate by explaining how the numbers in S.B. 199 were calculated. He said the state constitution requires the Legislature to draft a budget bill using the governor’s revenue estimate as a starting point. After that, the body can add whatever tax increases it enacts and money from other funds, Hall said.

The governor’s revenue estimate was about $4.055 billion for the general revenue fund. After transferring money from other funds to the general fund and adding $2.8 million from an increase in the liquor wholesale tax that the governor did at his discretion, that gave the Senate $4.102 billion in funds to work with, Hall said.

Hall said the bill does not include money that would not be sent to county school boards under S.B. 609 or from any tax increases approved by the Senate last week and awaiting action by the House.

The general fund, special revenue funds, lottery funds and federal funds bring the total state budget for fiscal year 2018 to about $13 billion.

“I know we’re going to fight over $200 million of that,” Hall said.

Hall said he did not like the cuts in the budget bill, but it is better to pass a budget bill so the Senate has something it can work with the House on.

Democrats immediately rose in opposition to S.B 199 and its 3.8 percent across-the-board cuts, which hit higher education harder than most other areas. Higher education funding is cut 15.1 percent in the bill.

Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, asked where this bill originated, as the Finance Committee did not draft it.

“This is not the Senate budget. This is the Senate majority leader’s budget,” Prezioso said.

Higher education would take a $160 million cut in addition to about $600 million in other cuts in recent years, Prezioso said. The budget eliminates funding for tobacco prevention programs, and it does not include a teacher pay raise, he said.

“Mr. President, I’ve been here a long time. I’ve never seen a budget so cruel,” Prezioso said. Prezioso spent several sessions as Finance Committee Chairman when the Democratic Party was in power.

Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, said the budget reduces spending for programs aimed at children’s health, and its cuts $4 million from foster care. S.B. 199 does not fix roads, and it increases future health care costs, he said.

Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, asked Hall about the cuts in foster care, to which Hall replied, “These are not things I personally want to see happen. To me, it’s a numbers game.”

To that Woelfel said, “Somebody stand up and tell me how this is okay.”

Sen. Mark Maynard, R-Wayne, defended the budget bill. He said the Legislature had created line items in the past and gambled that revenue would be there in the future to keep them going, but that gamble has been lost.

“Nobody on this side of the aisle wants to make those cuts,” he said.

Sen. Robert Beach, D-Monongalia, said West Virginia University is being asked to take too much of a cut. About 80 percent of WVU’s budget is fixed costs, and the school’s appropriation has been reduced by $35 million since 2011, he said.

“They keep adjusting. We keep cutting. This has to end,” he said.

Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, replied that S.B. 199 does what his voters want the state to do, and that is to live within its means.

“Are we to believe the sky is falling … when we cut the budget 3 and a half percent?” he asked.

Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, added, “We are honoring the governor’s campaign pledge with this budget.”

In his remarks, Carmichael said the Legislature must control state spending, and S.B. 199 does that. The Legislature has raised taxes in the past, but that has not prevented the current budget problem, he said.

When Unger asked Carmichael if S.B 199 would lead to layoffs and fewer academic programs in higher education, Carmichael replied, “I wish we could do more, but for too long we have spent more than we have.”

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