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W.Va. lawmakers, relieved but not happy, pass budget


The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — No West Virginia lawmaker expressed any contentment with a $4.225 billion budget for fiscal year 2018 that met final approval Friday night.

At best, some lawmakers said they were relieved a budget was being passed in time to prevent state government from shutting down just 14 days before the start of the fiscal year.

At press time, the Legislature was on pace to adjourn sine die (no plans to reconvene) from the special legislative session that began on May 4.

The budget approved Friday was the most bare-bones proposal that had been considered by lawmakers during the special legislative session.

“The reality of this moment is we are a few days away, very few days away, from some, quote, drop-dead days,” Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, R-Putnam, said during debate Friday night.

The budget passed Friday relied on some cuts along with use of one-time money transfers among some government accounts, plus heavy reliance on anticipated surpluses to avoid substantial cuts to Medicaid.

The budget was approved 64-25 in the House of Delegates, with the eight-member delegation from Cabell and Wayne counties voting 6-2 in support of it. Dels. Sean Hornbuckle and Chad Lovejoy, both D-Cabell, voted against it.

In the Senate, SB 1013 was approved 19-8. Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, supported the measure, and Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, was one of seven senators absent at the time of the vote.

Read Senate Bill 1013

The next substantial step to avoid a government shutdown at the start of fiscal year 2018 on July 1 is Gov. Jim Justice putting his signature on the budget bill.

Earlier this week, Justice said with the impending deadline to pass a budget, he would be put in a tough position if he were presented with a budget heavy in cuts.

“If the Senate (budget) bill were to come to me today, I’d veto it today,” Justice said Wednesday. “If it comes to me two days before this shutdown, you’re going to have a really tough decision at that time because the shutdown’s catastrophic. Not vetoing this bill and signing it is catastrophic. If you sign this bill, there are so many people who are going to be hurt, it’s unbelievable. If you shut down the government, it’s the same kind of thing. You’re going to be faced with a decision that’s a no-win decision.”

The Senate made some changes to the bill Friday that were the point of heavy debate in the House on Friday, mostly in regard to cuts to higher education.

The Senate’s amendments restored $3.9 million in funding to the West Virginia Department of Education in support of the 21st Century Learners program and truancy prevention.

The Senate’s changes also increased cuts to higher education, to the tune of 2.4 percent for four-year public higher education institutions, with the exception of Shepherd University, which was not cut at all. Marshall University and West Virginia University were cut 6.4 percent each. Community and technical colleges were cut 4.6 percent. Blue Ridge Community and Technical College was not affected by the cut.

“A shutdown is not where we want to go,” Del. Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, said. “While it may not be what we want, I implore you to take a hard look at this. We need to find agreement with the Senate.”

House Democrats spoke the most about the cuts to higher education.

“I don’t even know how to address this,” Del. Rodney Miller, D-Boone, said. “How can we say with a straight face that we’ve won the day cutting the throats of the kids in our great state? … We’re running our most valuable resources from West Virginia.”

The version of the bill approved Friday night restored funding to Medicaid through some financial transfers among state accounts and revenue-projection planning the House had proposed Wednesday to make sure the state didn’t lose its 3-to-1 match from the federal government for the program.

As the budget stood Friday night, lawmakers had set a revenue bar for Medicaid that, on paper, will provide the necessary funding to ensure the state will keep its federal match.

Current revenue estimates for the funds that support state Medicaid are short of that projection.

On Tuesday, House Finance Committee Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, said $10 million from an anticipated surplus in the general revenue fund along with $5 million from the general lottery fund, $10 million from the excess lottery surplus and $12 million from the Senate’s account will be enough to partially fund Medicaid for the first part of the year. The estimated surpluses from the general revenue fund and the excess lottery surplus would be used later in the year to backfill the state’s Medicaid services.

The budget also assumes economic development and general revenue dollars from roads bills proposed by Justice, one of which met final approval Friday night.

House Bill 1006, if it’s signed into law, will contribute an estimated $125 million in economic development to the state’s general revenue fund via road work throughout the state that will be funded by raising the state’s gas tax and some Division of Motor Vehicles fees.

A second roads bill, House Bill 1003, affecting the West Virginia Parkways Authority and the state’s tolls, was being considered at press time Friday.

The provisions of the budget reflected the estimated revenue for fiscal year 2018 without any measures to increase revenue to the state, several of which were debated during the special session.

The biggest point of contention among members of the House and Senate and Justice was a change to the state’s income tax structure.

Throughout the budget process, Senate GOP-majority leaders were in favor of tax reform plans that largely increased the state’s sales tax and reduced and restructured the income tax.

House leaders in both parties were adamantly against substantial income tax reform during the special session, and they favored keeping the sales tax at its current rate but increasing the services and goods for which West Virginians paid the sales tax.

Any lingering hope of compromise seemed to be suffocated Thursday following a contentious meeting among lawmakers, Justice and lobbyists. House members left the meeting saying they felt they were being bullied into going with an income tax plan they felt hadn’t been vetted and would leave a hole in the budget.

Senators supporting the income tax plan said it was an act of improvement to the state’s “same old” economic-stimulating and budget-balancing methods they say haven’t been helpful in growing the state.

The Senate approved SB 1013 around 7:30 p.m. Friday after conversations among senators, who said they weren’t happy with the bill, but they wanted to complete work on the budget to avoid a shutdown.

“If this is what we are going to do, we could’ve done this on May 4 and saved so much agony,” Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, said. “I’ve heard the terms purgatory and agony. This is not fun times up here, folks. And being away from our families, our work, so here we are going to do all these cuts we could’ve done a long time ago and saved us a lot of money and agony.”

Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said while he wasn’t happy with how the budget appeared to turn out, he was happy with the GOP-majority leadership in the Senate during the session.

“I’m not ashamed of anything,” Blair said. “The only thing I’m ashamed about is it took us this long to get there. You know, sometimes that’s the way the process works, and we don’t control everything because if we did, that’s a dictatorship. We’re not running a dictatorship here.”

In the House, lawmakers expressed their disappointment with the situation Friday night even as they passed the budget.

“Let’s look at the mirror when we leave here,” said Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha. “We haven’t been able to pass a revenue bill when it’s needed. … If this is the best we can pass, let’s do ourselves a favor and not give ourselves a round of applause when we leave here.”

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