Legislative Session Ends Without a Budget in West Virginia
By Pamela Pritt
The legislative session fraught with labor and social issues that raised the hackles of many a lawmaker ended Saturday night on a more peaceful note than many state government spectators would have thought possible after is rocky beginning.
Sixty days ago, right to work and the repeal of the prevailing wage were the hot button topics causing partisan votes, and the Religious Freedom Protection Act (formerly RFRA) caused turmoil in the halls of the Capitol.
With those issues out of the way, lawmakers settled into a more routine groove, with only a few partisan collisions in the latter half of the session.
One of those is yet ongoing, as neither chamber can agree on a budget.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Saturday night during the session it's unlikely that the three-day special session will be enough to resurrect the budget from the predicament lawmakers are in.
The Senate voted on revenue increases that would take care of a $466 million projected budget shortfall for 2017, but the House of Delegates didn't take up those bills. Instead, the House budget relies on expiring one-time monies from several accounts and cutting state expenses.
Tomblin said "all the low hanging fruit" had already been cut in two 7.5 percent cuts over two years and another 4 percent cut last fall. The House budget also withdraws $31.7 million from the state's Rainy Day Fund.
"You balance the budget with one-time money and this time next year there's not going to be any place to go," Tomblin said.
If the House takes another 6.5 percent, then the state begins to layoff employees, including 80 State Troopers and 10 or more civilian employees in public safety, the governor said.
Cuts would also notch higher education, and community and technical colleges would see closure of branches and employee layoffs, Tomblin said.
Those schools are attended almost exclusively by West Virginia residents, he continued, and those residents would have "hardship" as they travel farther to attend classes.
And worse, for state students, Promise Scholarships and needs-based scholarships would see cuts, as well, he said.
"We have two choices, get a sustaining revenue source that we can go along with or cut budgets," he said. "If they can make those cuts in three day, if that's what they want to do, that's up to them. But I think it would be tough to get votes on both sides to make cuts deep enough to get a balanced budget."
House Majority Leader John O'Neal, R-Raleigh, stressed that the House Budget Bill has been the most important bill for the 2016 session.
"We decided we wanted to sweep money from the piggy banks of state agencies instead of taking money from our citizens," he explained. "I'm proud our caucus as able to put forth a balanced budget with no new taxes under these circumstances. For us, raising taxes would be the last resort."
Delegate Ricky Moye, D-Raleigh, said the budget was pushed late into the session, which was a concern for him.
"The budget still has issues that need to be addressed," he said.
Delegate Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, agreed.
"We started with the budget hanging over our heads and 60 days later it is still hanging over us," he said.
He said he expects the Legislature to be back in May to fix a $200 million shortfall.
Bate is likely right, although Tomblin said he thinks the budget should be fixed before the Primary Election on May 10.
Tomblin said he is still concerned about the Public Employees Insurance Agency shortfall of $120 million, which would have been fixed by the budget he introduced that raised tobacco taxes.
On the Senate side, Jeff Mullins and Sue Cline were happy with the legislation passed early in the session.
Both said right to work and the repeal of the prevailing wage were important pieces of legislation.
"We've got to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars, you know, making it more competitive, getting more jobs, more opportunities," Mullins, R-Raleigh said.
Cline, R-Wyoming, who was appointed to replace former Sen. Daniel Hall, said she's anxious to see how those pieces of legislation work out over time.
"We've really done the will of the people and I think (repealing) prevailing wage and right to work (were) some really good bills," she said. "I think we've done a really good job."
Cline said those were some of the few truly partisan votes in the Senate.
"We have worked together to put things through. That's commendable to all of us on both sides," she said.
Mullins said the move of WVU-Tech to Beckley will mean economic development and new students in the area. Because state law mandated that WVU-Tech's headquarters be in Montgomery, the legislature had to pass a law to facilitate the move. WVU purchased the former Mountain State University campus last year for $8 million.
Register-Herald reporter Sarah Plummer contributed to this article.
(c)2016 The Register-Herald (Beckley, W.Va.)