By Phil Kabler
For The West Virginia Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Unlike the past two legislative sessions, when the new Republican leadership jumped into each new session with the passage of a flurry of bills, the 2017 regular session has gotten off to a comparatively slow start.
After 10 days in session, only two bills have been passed by the House of Delegates, and none by the Senate.
Looming over the session, of course, is the issue of dealing with a $500 million shortfall in the 2017-18 state budget.
Legislative leadership balked at Gov. Jim Justice’s budget plan, which would close the funding gap with $400 million in new taxes, about $26.6 million in spending cuts, and about $50 million in funding shifts to the general revenue budget.
In the House, Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, said he has set up subcommittees to look at different section of the budget, instructing them to come up with recommendations within two weeks.
Meanwhile, Justice continued to use the bully pulpit to sway public support for his budget plan, telling the annual West Virginians for Better Transportation rally at the Capitol Friday that short-term tax increases are the only way to get through the budget crisis.
“I wish it cost nothing, but the alternative is real simple,” he said, outlining the state parks, colleges and universities, and state programs he will have to close if there is no additional revenue in the 2017-18 state budget.
“Every time we constrict now, more people leave the state,” Justice said, challenging legislative leaders who want to balance the budget through spending cuts.
“If we lose this battle here, trust me, it’s over,” he added.
The annual rally for more funding for state roads and transportation took on a different tone this year, since Justice is proposing selling some $2.8 billion of road bonds to fund a massive highways construction and maintenance plan.
Justice said the plan would create a total of 48,000 jobs, which he said would lead to much-needed increases in sales tax and income tax collections.
“We can put our people to work,” he said.
In exchange, Justice said he is asking the average West Virginia driver to pay an extra $126 a year in gas taxes, and $20 more a year for license plate registrations.
A day earlier, TRIP, a national transportation association, released a report showing that poor roads cost the average Charleston driver $1,357 a year in additional expenses, with comparable costs for drivers in other parts of the state.
Statewide, deficient roads cost West Virginia drivers a total of $1.4 billion a year for additional vehicle repair and maintenance costs, crashes where road deficiencies are a contributing factor, and lost time and fuel from traffic congestion, the TRIP report found.
Justice administration Transportation Secretary Tom Smith called the TRIP report “alarming,” and cited it as proof the state needs to move forward with Justice’s road-building proposal.
“Roads are getting worse. Bridges are getting worse,” he said. “It really makes the point Gov. Justice has asked us to make.”
Besides financial costs – the TRIP study found that West Virginia drivers spend an average of $647 a year on additional vehicle maintenance and repair costs – poor road conditions contribute to accident and fatality rates that are significantly above national averages, according to the report.
Citing data from the Federal Highway Administration, the TRIP study noted that 29 percent of major roadways in the state are in poor condition, with 55 percent rated mediocre or fair.
The report released Thursday also notes that 17 percent of bridges in the state are rated as structurally deficient, which is 5th worst nationally.
Also last week, the Educational Broadcasting Authority held an emergency meeting on Justice’s proposal to eliminate state funding for the authority, which operates West Virginia Public Broadcasting stations across the state.
“Although it was a surprise to us, we have confidence in this administration. We have confidence we can work this out,” authority chairman Bill File said of proposed $4.6 million cut, which amounts to about 45 percent of EBA’s total budget.
“Without a state subsidy, we will not be able to maintain the network,” Public Broadcasting executive director Scott Finn told the authority. “We will have to make hard choices on what stations stay on or go off.”
Several authority members said the EBA needs to make the public and Legislature aware of the services Public Broadcasting provides, including Bruce Berry, who said, “We need to show the governor and the Legislature what we provide to them.”