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Legislative Update: Budget issues unresolved

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — With less than two weeks remaining in the 2014 regular session of the West Virginia Legislature,  the biggest unresolved issue appears to be the shortfall in funding to balance the 2014-2015 state budget.  And state legislators so far seem reluctant to pass legislation to close a $146 million gap in the spending plan.

Sen. Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee and he made it clear last week that “we’ve got problems with the budget.  The governor submitted a budget that was not balanced, because it is contingent on us passing several different pieces of legislation.”

Prezioso said the Legislature eventually may have to tap deeper into the state’s Rainy Day emergency fund than the $83.83 million Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has proposed taking out of the fund to balance the budget.

The Senate Finance Chairman said he is reluctant to take money from the Rainy Day fund for fear it may set a bad precedent.

In the fund’s 18-year history, lawmakers have used limited amounts only in cases of helping to finance recovery efforts during natural disasters.  The fund, which is in two accounts, contains more than $918. million.

Hollie Mason, director of public policy, said the Governor’s Office is willing to work with the Legislature to come up with a balanced budget.  She said Tomblin has not supported any tax increases, the administration will not rule it out if necessary to balance the budget.

The Legislature is unlikely to vote for any kind of tax hike, Perzioso said, in an election year when all 100 seats in the House of Delegates and 17 of the 34 Senate seats will be on the ballot for new terms.

“The chance of a tax increase getting through this session is pretty slim,” he said.

Meanwhile, members of the Legislature in both the State Senate and House of  Delegates have introduced legislation to “shoot down” — if you will pardon the pun — municipal gun control laws in Charleston and other West Virginia cities.

SB317 was approved  by the Senate Government Organization Committee on Feb. 12 after some changes and is now in the Senate Judiciary Committee.  The original version of that bill was far more wide-reaching.  It would not only have prohibited all municipal gun laws but also allow out-of-state residents and special interest groups to sue cities with gun laws remaining on their books and allow judges to force cities to pay damages to said groups.

Last year, legislators changed the state’s Home Rule Pilot Program to add prohibition of firearms ordinances while authorizing current laws to exist until 90 days after a new or current municipality is selected for home rule in 2014.  Delegate Patrick Lane, D-Kanawha, added the language relating to firearms.

Before the Senate Government Organization Committee amended SB317, it not only would have prohibited all municipal gun laws but would also allow out-of-state residents and special interest groups to sue cities with gun laws remaining on their books and allowed judges to force cities to pay damages to these groups.In other legislative developments last week:

— the House of Delegates passed a bill to increase the state’s minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.75 by 2016.  The roll call vote on HB4283 was 89-5 with Republicans Troy Andes, R-Putnam; Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan; Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer; Larry Kump, R-Berkeley; and John Overington, R-Berkeley, the only votes against it.

— House members also voted 48-48 that blocked a discharge motion to bring a bill to ban abortions of fetuses after 20 weeks gestation (HB2364) to the House floor, a move that House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrision, described as “pandering” to those attending a right-to-life rally by West Virginians for Life last Tuesday.

— The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced SB6 — legislation that would require people to get a doctor’s prescription before they could buy cold medications containing pseudoephedrine, a key-meth making ingredient — and the full Senate passed that bill by a vote of 25-9 last Wednesday.  There is no certainty that the House of Delegates members will support the legislation.

— Members of the House Committee on Agriculture endorsed HB4273 that allow non-farmers to own a cow or stake in a cow for consuming the animal’s unpasteurized milk.  The sale of unpasteurized milk is illegal in West Virginia although family farms may privately consume the milk raw.

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