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Senate passes budget bill


The Register-Herald

CHARLESTON, W.Va.  — After a little more than an hour of debate with opponents expressing concerns over “draconian cuts” and proponents saying the state needs to live within its means, the West Virginia Senate passed a $4.1 billion budget in a 20-14 vote.

The vote fell along party lines except for Republicans Jeff Mullins, R-Raleigh, and Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, who sided with Democrats.

Gov. Jim Justice had proposed a $4.39 billion budget with tax hikes while the House budget came in at $4.24 billion.

With differences between Senate and House budgets, a conference committee will attempt to iron those out and produce a budget both chambers can pass.

But even then it will almost certainly face a Justice veto.

Sen. Mike Hall, R-Putnam, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, said, “This is an ongoing discussion. It’s not solved yet. We are here today with very little revenue to build our budget.”

The Senate budget imposes a roughly 2.5 percent cut across all state agencies including a 3.68 percent reduction to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources and a 15 percent cut to higher education. The budget also zeroes out West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

The Senate budget cuts $77 million from public education. Senate Bill 609, a revenue portion of the bill, would allow county commissioners to raise property taxes up to 18 percent to make up for lost funding in public education. Sen. Sue Cline, R-Wyoming, is a co-sponsor of that piece of legislation. Proponents say the measure provides more flexibility to local school systems and wouldn’t amount to an increase if county boards decide to roll back the property tax rate to current levels.

Sen. Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, spoke out against the Senate budget, calling the cuts “draconian.” He said the budget adds another $160 million in cuts on top of the $600 million that has been cut over the last six years.

His concerns, he said, were cuts to public education and the lack of teacher pay raises, which Gov. Jim Justice has recommended. He is also worried about the cut to the Department of Health and Human Resources, which he said could affect $100 million in federal matching grants.

“I’ve been here for a while and I’ve never seen a budget so cruel,” Prezioso said.

Sen. Ron Stollings, D- Boone, also spoke out against the bill. He said he was concerned about zeroing programs under the DHHR such as the Center for End of Life Care, tobacco cessation program and the Office of Healthy Lifestyles.

“I don’t know what the endgame is but I know this budget is draconian in nature,” Stollings said.

Sen. Mark Maynard, R-Wayne, blamed past budget practices.

“We’re having to pay that price of a gamble made over the past few years,” Maynard said. “It’s not fun. Nobody wants to make these cuts. If you have a six figure job and you get demoted, then you have to do away with luxury items that you love near and dear to your heart.”

Another proponent, Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, said he supported the bill because he said in his view, it accomplishes the goal of the state living within its means, which he said is the desire that he’s heard from his constituents.

“Don’t impose on citizens of this state a burden of more and more taxes to grow this government that never seems to stop growing,” Trump said.

Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, also spoke out in favor, saying he loved the budget and thought it was the best budget he’s seen in his time in office.

 “Yes there are cuts,” he said. “But that forces agencies to come back to us to help them downsize and right-size our government for the working people.”

Senate President Mitch Carmichael also stepped down from the podium to defend the budget, which turned into a heated question and answer session with Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley.

Carmichael said nothing in the budget was an easy choice but said it was the right choice.

“We have to live within our means,” he said. “Nobody likes to do that. We all want to live beyond our means. This budget does impose some burdens. Either way we do it, it does. Whether we raise taxes or try to live within our means.”

Unger said he didn’t like how the budget process was handled, saying he thought there were back room deals made with caucus members and the process was not as open as he would have liked.

He asked Carmichael if he understood the ramifications of the cuts the budget would make, especially regarding the DHHR and the federal matching dollars. Carmichael said he understood how it would affect federal matching grants but said it was, in total, less than a 4 percent cut.

Unger continued his questioning about higher education and K-12, saying that proposed cuts would be devastating.

“If we don’t start investing in the people of West Virginia, this is why we are in the situation we are in,” Unger said. “I understand living within our means but there is an aspect of investing in our future.”

After Trump called a point of order, the question and answer session stopped, which was when Unger flipped the switch on a red lantern flashing on his desk, and members voted on the bill.

Sens. Jeff Mullens, R-Raleigh, and Ron Miller, D-Greenbrier, were among the 14 no votes. Cline voted for the proposed budget.

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