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Day 1 of special session: lawmakers try to get arms around budget problems

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Day 1 of special session: lawmakers try to get arms around budget problems
By Jeff Jenkins, WV MetroNews

The first day of the special legislative session on state budget issues Monday produced some big numbers and a lot of questions.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin called the 134 members of the House of Delegates and state Senate to Charleston to deal with a $111 million revenue shortfall in the current state budget and to pass a budget for next fiscal year that currently has a revenue deficit of $271 million.

Members of the House and Senate finance committees attended a meeting Monday afternoon to hear the governor’s plan explained by state Revenue Secretary Bob Kiss and others. The current budget year isn’t getting any better, Kiss said.

“Nothing that’s occurred in the last couple weeks in terms of the data we’ve collected and analyzed has caused us to change our opinion that we’re still looking at the worse case scenario that we started tracking several months ago,” Kiss told lawmakers.

The governor is proposing filling the current budget hole by sweeping several accounts along with taking $12 million from the legislature’s “traffic” fund and $29 million from the Rainy Day Fund.

The governor’s bills to raise the tobacco tax by 45-cents and the consumer sales tax by 1 percent were both introduced Monday. Administration officials said the tax increases would produce a combined $274 million which would cover the revenue shortage in next fiscal year’s budget.

The governor’s agenda also includes lifting the sales tax exemption on the telecommunications tax, which would produce $60 million but Kiss confirmed the tax money is not in the governor’s proposed budget. It’s just an option for lawmakers.

House Minority Leader Tim Miley (D-Harrison) predicts the proposals will have a tough time in the House.

“I don’t think there’s going to be support for much of those tax increases, quite frankly,” Miley said.

If not, lawmakers will have to come up with further cuts. Kiss warned using one-time money for those cuts would bring a repeat of the problem next year.

Lawmakers are limited in special sessions to acting on what is listed on the governor’s call. Several lawmakers were critical of the call in statements made Monday. Senator Craig Blair (R-Berkeley) called it restrictive, limiting solutions lawmakers can come up with.

“It ties the hands, no matter whether you’re in the majority or the minority or which chamber you’re in, of being capable of being creative and being able to look out for the taxpayers of West Virginia,” Blair said.

The Senate passed the governor’s 45-cent increase in tobacco tax through fist reading Monday. Miley was asked during an appearance on MetroNews “Talkline” Monday if House Democrats would be willing to move off of their $1 increase proposal.

“No. No. I will not,” Miley said. “We’ve made it very clear from day one the basis for our support of a dollar cigarette tax. It has not only a health benefit but a revenue benefit,” he said.

There’s also the issue of approximately 20 House Republicans who have signed a no tax pledge. Senator Corey Palumbo (D-Kanawha) called that decision “totally reckless.”

“If there was such a thing as legislative malpractice–signing that in my mind would be it,” Palumbo said.

The House and Senate finance committees are scheduled to meet Tuesday morning to go over the governor’s plans with more questions expected. Floor sessions are scheduled for late morning.

Senator Herb Snyder (D-Jefferson) urged Senate President Bill Cole and other senators to lead the way in a Monday evening floor speech.

“The Senate has always shown the leadership of the 34-member body versus a hundred (House members) of doing what needs to be done. Mr. President, this is one of those times,” Snyder said.