Lawmakers OK budget, correct vetoed bills
By Phil Kabler, Staff writer
Legislators closed out the first regular session of the 82nd West Virginia Legislature on Wednesday, approving a 2015-16 budget bill that includes $4.3 billion in spending from tax revenue while also continuing to correct an upsurge of bills vetoed for technical errors. The budget bill (HB2016) takes $22.7 million from the state’s “Rainy Day” reserve fund to balance the budget, but it also partially restores several spending cuts Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin had proposed.
That includes reducing a proposed $12 million cut in higher education funding to about $4.6 million. It also reduces proposed cuts to Health Right free clinics, as well as domestic-violence prevention programs and veterans’ programs, while providing an additional $4 million for the State Police forensics lab.
The House passed the bill 84-12, while the Senate approved it 25-8, wrapping up a four-day extended session to complete the state spending plan.
Also Wednesday, the Legislature took up veto messages and corrected six bills that Tomblin had vetoed for technical errors — amid complaints that the governor has been unusually harsh in finding errors in bills this session.
Meanwhile, House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, said West Virginia’s budget outlook should begin to improve after the coming year, as this budget could be the last that will have to commit $350 million annually to pay off what was a $3 billion unfunded liability for Workers’ Compensation benefits, dating back to the 1970s.“Our budget outlook looks much, much better, and a lot of that is the expected full payment of this obligation,” he said.
However, after several years of austere budgets, Delegate Jim Morgan, D-Cabell, said the Legislature, at some point, must invest in the state, rather than make cuts.
“When you go home, people are going to ask, “What have you done for us?” and you’re not going to be able to say you’ve done very much at all,” he said. “What could have happened if we had chosen to invest in a better West Virginia?”
In the Senate, Finance Chairman Mike Hall, R-Putnam, noted that, with $10 billion of federal funding and various special revenue accounts, the total operating budget for state government in 2015-16 will actually be $22.68 billion.
He said the bill also provides a total of about $20 million for planned renovation of Capitol Complex Building 3, but by using anticipated state Lottery surplus funds and Rainy Day funds, if necessary, as opposed to general revenue funding sought by the administration.
The vetoed bills included one to streamline the process for immunizing schoolchildren, which passed in the waning minutes of the regular session Saturday night, after the House withdrew a controversial provision that would have required legislative approval to add or remove vaccinations required for children to enroll in public schools (SB286). Tomblin vetoed the bill because its title section did not accurately summarize the contents of the bill, as required by law.
It is one of 11 bills Tomblin has vetoed to date because of title errors. Several of the bills also had other technical or substantive mistakes, according to Tomblin. To date this session, Tomblin has issued 13 technical vetoes, more than four times the number of vetoes for technical errors for the 2014 session. Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, suggested that Tomblin’s office has been unusually stringent in vetoing bills for grammatical errors or numbering conflicts than in the past, when House and Senate clerks’ offices have been allowed to correct minor errors before the new legislation became part of the state code.
In the House, Majority Leader Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, also called Tomblin’s vetoes unduly harsh, noting that, on one bill, “This fix could have been done by the clerk’s office, and a veto was not necessary.”
Along those lines, Senate Clerk Clark Barnes and House Clerk Steve Harrison jointly sent a letter to the governor Wednesday raising issues with vetoes of bills for creating new sections of state code that duplicated the same new chapter and article created in another bill. On Tuesday, for instance, Tomblin vetoed a bill permitting the use of epinephrine auto injectors for emergency treatment of severe allergic reactions (SB2648) because it created a new section of code, 16-46-1. Tomblin, however, noted that a bill he had signed into law March 9 expanding use of naloxone injections to counteract heroin overdoses (SB335) also created a 16-46-1 in state code.
Legislators had to correct the error by re-passing the epinephrine bill with a new code citation.
However, in their letter, Barnes and Harrison said that, in the past, governors have signed bills into law with the same code references and allowed the clerks to correct the designation.
“For example, with two bills creating a new section 10, the bill that passed first would retain the designation 10, while the second bill would be designated as section 11,” the clerks wrote.
“This has been and will continue to be the practice of the Clerk’s office,” they added. “We hope this will clarify any questions you may have then examining legislation passed by the Legislature.”
Tomblin Press Secretary Shayna Varner said in an email the governor appreciates the clerks providing clarification about past practices.