By JOSELYN KING
The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register
WHEELING, W.Va. — West Virginia Senate Republicans on Tuesday abandoned plans for tax reform, then passed a budget based on an increased revenue estimate of $4.22 billion that’s likely to get a cold reception in the House.
As the Legislature faces increasing pressure to pass a budget by the end of this week to make payroll in July, the House and Senate also couldn’t come to terms with a measure establishing policies for the furloughing of employees in the event of a government shutdown. A separate conference committee was appointed to address that issue.
Tuesday was all about numbers at the State Capitol. The special session on the budget began May 4, but Tuesday marked the first day an actual budget bill was discussed by lawmakers, noted Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley.
The House officially has been in session 15 days; and the Senate, 14 days.
The Senate passed a budget based largely on sharp cuts to Medicaid and higher education, which drew objections from Democrats. The bill passed along party lines with a vote of 22-12.
All members of the Senate were present for the vote. Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio; and Sens. Ryan Weld, R-Brooke; Mike Maroney, R-Marshall; and Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, were among Republicans all voting in favor. Tuesday was the first day of the special session that Maroney was in attendance.
The bill includes a $34.1 million cut to Medicaid. And because Medicaid dollars come to states with a three-to-one match, this equals a cut of $136.4 million to West Virginia’s Medicaid system.
The budget measure also cuts higher education by $33 million, with most state universities experiencing an 11-percent decrease in their state funding. Shepherd University and Blue Ridge Community and Technical College would not receive any cuts under the plan because of the small amount of funding they receive.
Teachers would not get a 2-percent pay raise under the budget passed by the Senate, and $25 million for the Governor Jim Justice’s “Save Our State” infrastructure fund was eliminated.
The budget does retain appropriations for fairs and festivals throughout the state, as well as money for West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the Wheeling and West Virginia symphony orchestras.
Ferns presented the budget bill on the Senate floor, and took a grilling from Democrats.
Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, asked Ferns how the $136 million in Medicaid cuts would be passed on to the 600,000 West Virginians that receive Medicaid.
“Our position all along was to avoid cuts through tax reform,” Ferns said. “The alternative is to base the budget on revenue estimates, and cuts have to be made somewhere.”
Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, noted the budget was “submitted by a group of individuals” and not a committee.
And he wondered why higher education was singled out for cuts.
“A 1-cent (sales) tax on food could eliminate that,” Prezioso said.
In the House, members heard first reading of the House’s budget bill. House Finance Committee Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, said the bill calls for $4.281 billion in general fund spending, noting that amount was about $30 million less than this year’s spending.
“It is a responsible bill that does fund critical services,” he said.
Nelson said the House budget bill funds scholarships and would make no cuts to free clinics such as Health Right.
Some members expressed their frustration at the inability of the conference committee to report back on the tax reform bill.
Others went on to attack legislative leadership.
“It’s pretty shameful, the leadership in this body … ,” said Delegate Patrick Lewis, R-Lewis. “This is the same boat we were in at the end of session. … There’s no path for the future of West Virginia. It’s sad to see the worry on the faces of West Virginians. It’s truly scary.
“We have had plenty of time to do our job, yet still we’re here wasting taxpayers’ dollars,” he continued. “It’s shameful we’re here — and I’m sad to say, it’s because of a lack of leadership.”
House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, left the podium and addressed House members from the floor.
He said much hard work has been going on in the Legislature, and he was personally offended by remarks suggesting House members were wasting time in Charleston.
“All of us want to be done, and no one wants this government to shut down,” he said.
“We just have a lot of different ideas about how we get there.”
Armstead cautioned members that they may not like pieces of legislation they see in the coming days, but that a compromise is going to have to happen.
“I do believe there is movement toward legislation and a budget,” he said. “We just need movement to get these pieces of legislation passed.”
The Senate appointed Sens. Charles Trump, R-Morgan; Chandler Swope, R-Mercer; and Mike Romano, D-Harrison, to the conference committee for the furlough bill. House members named were John Shott, R-Mercer; Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay; and Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell.
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