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Tom Miller Legislative Column looks at Budget shortfall

By Tom Miller
For the West Virginia Press Association

CHARLESTON, W.Va. —   It’s no secret that estimated state revenues for the 2014-2015 budget year beginning July 1, 2014, are about $100 million less than the operating budget recommended by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.  But legislative leaders made it clear here last week they don’t want to raise taxes.

House Finance Chairman Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, said during a break in the House floor session last week that “everything is on the table.”  He even mentioned that some have suggested a tax increase on cigarettes.

He said, however, that the state’s Rainy Day Fund has sufficient reserves that could be used to help balance the FY2015 state budget without any tax hikes.  And while the current gap between anticipated revenues and the recommended budget expenditures is still unresolved, lawmakers have already hinted they may come up with a combination of some reductions in anticipated spending coupled with money from the Rainy Day Fund.

Delegate Jim Morgan, D-Cabell, introduced HAB4456 last week that would increase the state’s consumer sales tax from six percent to seven percent but there seems to be little or no interest in that approach from members of the House Finance Committee where that bill has been assigned.

Meanwhile, the House Health Committee recommended a bill last Wednesday evening to regulate above-ground chemical storage tanks that would also require water utilities to submit plans to deal with possible contaminations like last month’s Elk River chemical spill.

But it is far different from SB373 that passed the State Senate in late January, according to Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, who is chairman of the committee.  It must still be approved by both the House Judiciary Committee and the House Finance Committee, however, before it could come up for a vote by the entire 100 members of the House of Delegates.

The Health Committee in the House creates a new section of code requiring the Department of Environmental Protection to compile and maintain a list of all potential water contaminants–not just contaminants from above-ground storage tanks–within about 25 miles of public water sources.

Meanwhile, state tax collections exceeding expectations for the first time this budget year hardly made a dent in West Virginia’s current revenue shortfall.  Collections were about $73 million less than anticipated during the first seven months of the 2013-2014 budget year that ends June 30, according to Deputy Revenue Secretary Mark Muchow.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin announced a $33 million spending reduction last month in the face of an $81.5 million shortfall which some officials insisted was actually closer to $66 million thanks to so-called “calendar quirks.”

Collections for severance taxes–those associated with production of natural gas, coal and other resources–were up 7.2 percent compared to this time last year, Muchow said.  But that’s still not enough to exceed collection estimates by the end of the budget year, he added.

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 Senate leaders expect the full Senate to pass the bill.  But they are less certain 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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