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WV House passes budget; senators wary of changes

By LACIE PIERSON

The Herald-Dispatch

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Members of the West Virginia House of Delegates on Wednesday gave an answer to the question of how they expect the budget for the state of West Virginia to look without any extra revenue for fiscal year 2018.

West Virginia House of Delegates Finance Committee Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, addresses the House Wednesday. The House of Delegates passed a budget, which will have to be approved by the Senate.
(Photo by West Virginia LRIC)

With the start of the fiscal year 16 days away, the House of Delegates passed its version of the $4.225 billion budget 69-30 after about 2 1/2 hours of debate over cuts to higher education and whether the budget reflected the actual best policy for the Mountain State or whether it represented a retaliation from Senate majority leaders in response to the House members’ blockade against personal income tax reform.

The House kept the same $4.225 billion funding level the Senate had, but their version relied less on cuts and used one-time money transfers among some government accounts and heavy reliance on anticipated surpluses to balance the budget.

“June 30 is upon us,” said House Finance Committee Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha. “What’s this bill do? It’s certainty — certainty to the citizens of the state. It’s certainty to businesses of the state, especially those wishing to come here, and it’s certainty to our many thousands of state employees. This budget is the best we have with the resources we had in front of us and passed.”

The bill will be sent back to the Senate to see whether senators will concur with the House changes. The Senate is expected to receive the bill again when it reconvenes at noon Thursday, June 15.

Cabell and Wayne county delegates voted 4-4 on SB 1013, along party lines. Republicans Carol Miller, Chuck Romine, Matt Rohrbach and Kelli Sobonya, all from Cabell, supported the measure. ­Democrats Sean Hornbuckle and Chad Lovejoy, both of Cabell, and Ken Hicks and Robert Thompson, both of Wayne, voted against it.

When it passed the Senate on Tuesday, SB 1013 relied largely on almost $70 million in cuts, mostly split between the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, mostly affecting Medicaid, and public higher education institutions.

The House changed the bill to make smaller cuts to higher education, with the final result being 2 percent cuts to all of the state’s four-year institutions. Marshall University and West Virginia University were cut more, to the tune of about 6.6 percent.

None of West Virginia’s community and technical colleges were cut in the House’s budget Wednesday.

An amendment to the proposal to restore some funding to Marshall University and West Virginia University — an additional $3.8 million from other parts of the budget — was rejected by House members 58-35.

The House’s budget also deflected some of the Senate’s proposed cuts to Medicaid, specifically affecting the money that is used to pay for Medicaid patients’ doctor visits and medical treatments.

That funding also has a 3-to-1 match from the federal government, said Nelson, so the House used some specific money transfers and revenue-projection planning to make sure the state didn’t lose its federal match.

In their budget, delegates 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. Nelson 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.

“These Senate cuts jeopardize the health care programs that serve roughly one-third of our citizens and affect payments to our doctors and health facilities,” Nelson said in a news release Wednesday. “The House budget prioritizes spending by using surplus transfers and other cash on hand to avoid many of the sharp cuts to Medicaid contained in the Senate version of the budget.”

During debate about the bill, former Finance Committee chairman and current committee member Del. Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, expressed his frustration about what he said was political grandstanding over certain revenue measures, saying the debate about the budget and revenue for it had turned into a political competition and not a conversation about what’s best for West Virginia.

After he’d had the chance to look over the House’s budget, Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, said he was concerned about the use of those transfers for Medicaid, often called one-time money since they are transfers from one account to another and can’t be replenished without additional revenue sources, typically through tax increases or economic growth.

He also said he found it odd the House passed the $4.225 billion budget, since it also includes a little less than $130 million in revenue from the governor’s roads bills, which increase the gas tax, DMV fees and tolls. Neither of the roads bills have passed the House.

“There’s some things that jump out at you that you just can’t pass that budget,” Ferns said. “In this case they kind of went around the rules and included revenue from bills that haven’t passed.”

The House passed the budget on the 18th day of the first special session of the 83rd West Virginia Legislature.

Fiscal year 2018 begins July 1, 2017, and the state government would shut down, except for essential services, if a budget isn’t passed.

The cost for the legislative session is $35,000 per day if every lawmaker is present in both chambers when both legislative bodies convene.

The House will reconvene at 10 a.m. Thursday, June 15, and the Senate will reconvene at noon Thursday.

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