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State budget passes, heads to Tomblin’s desk

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State budget passes, heads to Tomblin’s desk
By Pamela Pritt, Register Herald reporter

Lawmakers have fended off a $271 million budget gap and a potential state government shutdown by passing a budget nearly a month into an extraordinary session.

A long-awaited state budget is headed to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's desk with a little more than two weeks to spare before the June 30 deadline that would have spelled a government shutdown. West Virginia has no constitutional mechanism to operate without a spending plan in place.

The legislature took care of a portion of that Monday by passing a bill that allows the governor to pay the state's bond debt if a shutdown does occur. Some Democrats, including Sen. Ron Miller, D-Greenbrier, opposed the bill, saying it would give the legislature an "out" when it has difficulty passing a budget.

Included in the $4 billion spending plan is one revenue measure — a 65-cent increase in the per pack tax on cigarettes, combined with an increase in taxes on other tobacco products and a new tax on e-cigarette fluids. The measure is expected to bring in nearly $100 million annually.

The budget also uses $70 million from the state's Rainy Day Fund and contains $300 million in reduced revenue estimates and $112 million in cuts.

Senators accepted the House of Delegates changes to the budget that include:
• $1.5 million for the West Virginia Center for Professional Development, which is the clearinghouse for teacher and principal certification and for training Advanced Placement teachers
• $500,000 for the Blue Ridge Community and Technical College
• $2 million for volunteer fire departments' Workers Compensation
• $250,000 for Cedar Lakes
• $17.6 million for Medicaid, funded by account sweeps that were in the House's original budget.

Those additions were partially offset by cutting revenue for greyhound purses by $4.1 million, which caused some Senate Democrats to rally around Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson, who represents an area heavily dependent on racing.

Greyhound purses are a statutory line item. Snyder said he believes that the action will end up in the courts and also that the legislative action is "inhumane" to both breeders and dogs, and "a dagger through the heart" of the greyhound racing industry.

"We are slapping the voters in Jefferson, Hancock and Ohio counties that voted in local referendums to have casinos," Snyder said.

The budget includes measures that will help fund the Public Employees Insurance Agency  with 415 million in additional revenue funds and a second supplement that uses $5 million to reduce PEIA premium increases for retirees from 12 percent to 6 percent; an additional $10 million that will help reduce benefit cuts and premium increases.

Senators voted 28-3 to pass the budget, with Democrats Snyder, Mike Romano, Harrison County, and John Unger, D-Berkeley voting against.

The House concurred on the amended budget 80-7, with Republicans Mike Azinger, Wood County; Michael Folk, Berkeley County; Marty Gearheart, Mercer County; and Patrick McGeehan, Hancock County, and Democrats Don Perdue, Wayne County, and Stephen Skinner, D-Jefferson, voting against the bill.

Gov. Tomblin is expected to sign this budget.

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Lawmakers also passed a bill that would help fund Boone County Schools in the 2016 budget.

Because of coal company bankruptcies, Boone County was not able to make its final payroll in this fiscal year. Also, the legislature did some clean up on a rules bill and a bill dealing with motor vehicle test and locks.

The Legislature adjourned "Sine Die" after nearly four weeks of deliberation on the state budget.