By Phil Kabler
For West Virginia Press
CHARLESTON,W.Va. — With a $430 million budget gap pending in the 2016-17 state budget, and little progress so far on tax increase proposals by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to close the gap, House Finance Committee Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, asked state agency heads how they would deal with an additional 6.5 percent cut in their budgets.
That would be on top of a 4 percent — $94 million — cut that Tomblin has already built into his budget plan, and for most agencies follows two consecutive years of 7.5 percent spending cuts.
Nelson released the responses this week, with most agencies seeing severe impacts from the hypothetical 6.5 percent cut.
Those cuts would force state agencies to lay off hundreds of employees, and force closure of state parks and recreational areas, college branch campuses, correctional facilities, State Police detachments, and wards in state hospitals.
“In most cases, these cuts suggest the elimination of state personnel, and other significant adverse impacts to agencies, programs, and services rendered to the public,” Nelson stated, saying he hopes the reports will be a starting point for discussions on dealing with the funding deficit.
Among some of the potential cuts:
— Layoffs of 166 full-time employees at five state hospitals, 14 positions at the Bureau of Public Health, and elimination of six substance abuse recovery coaches.
— Elimination of 350 positions at four-year colleges and universities, with cuts in programs and services, including cutting Promise scholarships and higher education grants.
— Closure of branch campuses at four community colleges, including Blue Ridge CTC’s Morgan County Center, and the Northern Advanced Technology Center.
— Cutting $71.5 million in State Aid to Schools, which would push 14 county school systems into deficits, and require a yet-to-be-determined reduction in staffs and operations.
— Layoffs of 87 State Troopers, along with five forensic analysts, two evidence technicians and three support staff from the State Police forensic laboratory. State Police detachments in Hundred, Grafton, Berkeley Springs, Parsons, Grantsville, St. Mary’s, Elizabeth and Quincy would also be closed.
— Closing or operating unstaffed the Greenbrier River Trail, North Bend Rail Trail, Prickett’s Fort, Droop Mountain and Beartown, Cathedral, Cabwaylingo, and Tu-endie-wei state parks, and the Panther Wildlife Management Area.
— Closure of the McDowell County Correctional Center, Stevens Correctional Center, and the Ronald C. Mulholland Juvenile Center.
Meanwhile, a bill that would help close at least part of the funding gap, by raising state tobacco taxes (SB420), cleared its first committee hurdle.
Senate Finance Committee members advanced the bill, after increasing the governor’s proposal for a 45-cent a pack increase in cigarette taxes to $1 a pack. That increase, which would raise the tax to $1.55 a pack, would raise $115.3 million a year.
While that would be nearly $44 million more than the governor’s proposal, senators raised concerns that the increase is too steep to have a chance of passing the House of Delegates.
“I’ve proposed a $1 increase probably every year I’ve been here in the Legislature, and it hasn’t gone anywhere, and it’s not going anywhere this year,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said, arguing against the higher tax. “We can achieve a small victory by getting a 45-cent increase.”
Joey Garcia, legislative director for Tomblin, shared the concern.
“Certainly, we thought 45 cents was a sweet spot,” Garcia said. “Also, we want to see something that can pass both houses.”
Also at the Capitol:
— The Senate voted 24-9 to advance a bill (SB10) that would ban what critics call “dismemberment abortions.”
The bill advanced over objections from medical professionals, who said the dilation and evacuation procedure is the safest measure to terminate pregnancies after 13 weeks, and is performed only when the woman’s health is endangered or the fetus is determined to be severely malformed.
Supporters of the measure, however, said the procedure was highlighted in videos last year by anti-abortion activists who targeted Planned Parenthood.
“We’re literally talking about ripping an unborn child, piece by piece, out of the womb,” Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Uphsur, said. The bill goes to the House.
— Senators also approved 34-0 a bill (SB298) that would allow restaurants to serve alcoholic beverages during Sunday brunch. The bill, which would move up the time spirits can be served on Sundays from 1 p.m. to 10 a.m., has been repeatedly defeated in the House.