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West Virginia legislators respond to GOP budget proposal

By JOCELYN KING

The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register

WHEELING — Local greyhound breeders would again feel the bite under a proposal to stop runaway state spending in West Virginia, according to the proposal Republican lawmakers unveiled Monday in Charleston.

 GOP leaders in the West Virginia Legislature announced their plans on how best to bring the state’s general fund budget of $4.5 billion in line with projected tax revenues of $4.055 billion — figures that show nearly $455 million in overspending by the state next year.

Among the ideas in the GOP proposal is one to eliminate the $15 million in greyhound “subsidies” expected to be paid out to dog breeders next year by the state.

These funds result from tax revenue generated by video lottery machines at the Wheeling Island Hotel-Casino-Racetrack and other tracks in West Virginia, with a portion of the dollars being redistributed back to the greyhound breeders.

Republicans in the Legislature also have suggested ending “casino modernization subsidies” received by the tracks, which they say would save the state $9 million next year.

Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, called the GOP proposal “a refreshing change of pace” over the budgets proposed in past legislatures, and the one proposed this year by Democrat Gov. Jim Justice.

“This budget is about government living within its means,” he said. “It is balanced on revenue estimates, and we would be spending only what we collected. What the finance committees did was prioritize to the best of their ability.”

As of right now, the state is looking at cuts to higher education, primary education and the Department of Health and Human Resources because state government “has not been willing to take a lead and prioritize spending,” according to Ferns.

“Some of the members believe if we are cutting services to the DHHR and education, maybe subsidies to the greyhounds also should be cut,” he said. “I understand this affects us in the Northern Panhandle, but I also understand how they arrived at that.”

The family of former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin was in the greyhound breeding business. Delegate Erikka Storch, R-Ohio, said when he was in office, the subsidies were secure because “Earl Ray managed to take care of them.”

“Unfortunately, now the dogs are getting thrown to the wolves,” she said. “The people locally who depend on these subsidies are not wealthy. They are just trying to make a nice living for their families.

“I’ve been told that we still may have open discussions on the issue. I hope that happens.”

Delegate Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, said he found the GOP proposal “a little disappointing” in that it didn’t contain suggestions for any “real cuts.”

“The blue print officially unrolled today just moves money from one account to the next,” he said. “It forgoes making the annual transfer of dollars to the road fund, and they don’t fully fund the Department of Highways. They also want to impose taxation on beer.”

McGeehan also took notice that the cuts take away a proposed 2 percent increase in pay for West Virginia teachers, as well as the money from the dog breeders.

“The greyhound subsidies come from a tax from the tracks,” he said. “They only get a little back of their own money. It’s not really a subsidy.”

Sen. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, said tough decisions will have to be made across the state to reduce spending, and he did support the Republican plan released Monday.

“It’s a well-tested concept that you don’t spend more than you bring in,” he said. “Under the governor’s budget, we are going to spend more than we raise as a state in terms of revenue.

“To continually go back to taxpayers and say we want to spend more than we raised, that we want more money from the taxpayers, is not an effective way to govern.”

A Democrat, Delegate Shawn Fluharty of Ohio County, wasn’t impressed by the GOP’s budgetary efforts.

“This framework is more of the same and lacks a vision for the future,” he said. “We need new sources of revenue. We can’t tax or cut our way to prosperity, especially on the backs of teachers, students, and our crumbling infrastructure as is being proposed.”

Democrats Phil Diserio, of Brooke County, and Mike Ferry and Joe Canestraro of Marshall County did not immediately return calls seeking comment.

Lawmakers from elsewhere in West Virginia also weighed in on the GOP proposal.

Sen. Mike Azinger, R-Wood, said the budget proposal has a better chance of passing than the “Save Our State” budget from Justice.

“Justice’s is DOA,” Azinger said.

Delegate Vernon Criss, R-Wood, said the responsibility will be on the various agencies and departments to operate under the amounts appropriated.

“I think it’s great,” he said. “We’re finally getting government under control to live within the means of the funds that we’ve got coming in…. It’s a smart way to do it.”

Talk among lawmakers around the Capitol is that Justice will veto any budget that doesn’t include a revenue source or stream, Delegate John Kelly, R-Wood, said. Kelly said he didn’t know if the increases on the beer and wholesale liquor in the Republican plan “would be enough to pacify him.”

Kelly, hoping the allocations to fairs and festivals remain in the budget and survive the budget process, expects legislators to be spending a lot of time on the proposal in the coming weeks.

“They put it on the table, so we’re going to talk about it,” he said.

Also on Monday afternoon, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate said a group of legislators are in support of Justice’s proposal to cap pay to five days in a special session on the budget.

“We are facing a fiscal crisis and 60 days should be plenty of time to find a solution if we work together and focus on finding solutions we can all support,”Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said.

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