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WV Senate amends Tourism funding bill to include bond sales


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice’s plan to reorganize the state Division of Tourism will be up for a passage vote in the Senate Friday — but with an amendment approved Thursday that could effectively hold funding for all state tourism advertising hostage.

In Senate Bill 535, as amended by Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, the state would have until Jan. 1 to sell some $52.5 million of bonds to build lodges at the Cacapon Resort and Beech Fork state parks.

If that deadline is missed, under the amendment, all funding for state tourism advertising would be cut off until the projects are funded. Justice has made promoting and expanding tourism a key component of his economic development agenda, with proposals to increase state Tourism’s advertising and marketing budget by $10.6 million a year.

“We could set a TV up. There’s 283 days,” Trump said of the proposed deadline to sell the bonds, referencing the “budget countdown” monitor Justice has set up outside the governor’s office counting down the time remaining in the regular session.

Legislators in 2012 approved legislation in authorizing the sale of bonds for improvements to the parks in Morgan County in the eastern panhandle and in Cabell and Wayne counties, and the state Economic Development Authority voted to issue the bonds in 2013.

However, the bonds — which are to be financed with state Lottery profits — have never gone in market, because of an ongoing downturn in state Lottery revenues as openings of casinos in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland have siphoned gamblers away from the state’s four racetrack casinos.

In January 2015, then-Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette told legislators the state had maxed out the amount of bonds it could issue using future Lottery profits as bond payments. Over the years, Lottery profits have been committed to a wide variety of bonds sold to build public schools, as well as a number of economic and community development projects, including the Clay Center and Appalachian Power Park in Charleston.

On Thursday, Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, R-Putnam, likened the state’s situation with Lottery funding to a family that has a home mortgage, a car loan, and a loan on a boat.

“It’s like if you go back to buy something else, and they [the bankers] tell you, well, you have too much debt,” Hall said, adding, “There’s some concern if you want to sell these bonds, either the interest rates would be prohibitive, or you couldn’t sell them at all.”

Nonetheless, the Senate approved Trump’s amendment on a 27-6 vote, with Sens. Facemire, Hall, Miller, Palumbo, Prezioso, and Romano voting no. Sen. Robert Beach, D-Monongalia, was absent.

It’s not the first time Trump has tried to use legislation to secure funding for the Cacapon Resort State Park improvements. In 2015, he amended a supplemental appropriations bill to include a directive to sell the bonds.

However, then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin used his line-item veto authority on budget bills to erase that provision.

Also Thursday on the House floor, delegates soundly defeated an amendment by Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, to remove a section of a bill that would allow firearms at Coonskin Park outside of Charleston.

Pushkin said the provision, which would prohibit county commissions from enforcing firearms bans in county parks, was inserted into a “clean-up” bill to correct language in legislation passed last year allowing firearms in state parks.

Pushkin said, as best he can determine, the county prohibition would apply only to Coonskin Park, which he said presents unique circumstances, given its proximity to Yeager Airport and the National Guard armory.

“You can see the nuts and bolts of aircraft when they’re landing or taking off from Yeager Airport,” Pushkin said, saying the provision also is at odds with the Republican-controlled Legislature’s philosophy to shift governmental powers from Charleston to localities.

“We’re dealing with the constitutional right of our citizens to bear arms,” Delegate Justin Marcum, D-Mingo, countered. “It’s very important to have uniformity in these laws.”

Pushkin’s amendment was rejected on a 7-92 vote, with Delegates Caputo, Fleischauer, Hornbuckle, Lane, Pushkin, Pyles, and Rowe voting in favor, and with Delegate Brad White, R-Kanawha absent.

The bill will be on passage stage in the House Friday.

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