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Tension growing under the Capitol dome

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Tension growing under the Capitol dome
Hoppy's Commentary | Hoppy  Kercheval, WV MetroNews

By this time in the session, the West Virginia Legislature is like family; by that I mean everybody is mad at each other and they’re fighting about money.

That’s inevitable for several reasons.

First, the 100 members of the House of Delegates and 34 Senators have been occupying the same space here at the Capitol for seven weeks; meetings and floor speeches can drag on. The excitement of the early stages of the session gives way to weariness.

Second, lawmaking creates winners and losers. Many proposals have lawmakers and constituency groups that are either for or against. One side is going to come out on the short end, and that’s upsetting. Hard feelings and grudges are inevitable.

Third, the money is tight, really tight. West Virginia’s struggling coal industry is producing significantly less revenue to help pay the state’s bills, leaving Governor Tomblin and legislators scrambling to produce a balanced budget for next fiscal year.

With only a week left in the regular session–which can be extended by the Governor to work only on the budget–there is no agreement on how to do that, and that disagreement is multi-faceted.  Republicans hold the majority in both the Senate and House, but that doesn’t mean they are on the same page on how to solve the budget problems.

Take the tobacco tax. The Senate has approved a $1 per pack increase to raise another $134 million annually, but that appears to be a non-starter in the House. A couple Republican Delegates might agree to a dollar, far more would agree to .45-cents and a sizeable chunk of the caucus wants no tax increase at all.

Just yesterday, the House Finance Committee Republicans and Democrats joined together to vote down a .45 cent tax increase 21-3.

The House could get 51 votes for .45-cents if Democrats would join with them, but the Dems appear united behind a $1 increase, and are willing to let the GOP squirm with the conundrum.

Balancing the budget without a tobacco tax increase would mean even deeper cuts in state government. That fits the philosophical view of more conservative House members, but real cuts–not just leaving positions unfilled–could have political consequences.

Meanwhile, some House Republicans have to be perturbed that their Religious Freedom Restoration Act died in the Senate (with Republican help), but Senate leaders were never thrilled with RFRA in the first place. Also, the Senate has sent to the House a $300 million tax and fee increase for road construction, as well as a tax break for the gas and coal industries, knowing full well the House will never go along.

And on it goes on everything from the tax increases and the hole in the budget to whether or not they should change the law so you can enjoy a mimosa with your Sunday morning brunch. No wonder this legislative family tends to grow in dysfunction the longer it meets.

However, unlike a couple, divorce is not an option. The fact that the House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans, are unable to decouple from each other means they must come to terms on issues such as the budget, no matter how difficult that may be.