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Deficit looms over Tomblin's final State of the State

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Deficit looms over Tomblin's final State of the State
By Phil Kabler, The Charleston Gazette-Mail

Legislators return today, for the second session of the 82nd Legislature, facing uncertainties over West Virginia’s severe budget deficit and control of the Senate.

The 60-day session convenes at noon, and will be highlighted by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s sixth, and presumably final, State of the State address to a joint session of the Legislature at 7 p.m.

Looming over the session is a projected $353 million deficit in the 2015-16 budget, caused by ongoing cuts in state business taxes and by an unanticipated plunge in energy prices that has sharply cut state severance tax collections for natural gas, coal and oil.

Tomblin spokesman Chris Stadelman said the governor will address the shortfall, as well as challenges in balancing the 2016-17 state budget.

“He has a responsible plan that continues to pay off the sins of the past, manages our current situation and doesn’t mortgage our future,” Stadelman said.

Tomblin has not indicated if he will propose tax increases to deal with the funding crisis, although in a recent Gazette-Mail interview, the governor said he would be amenable to a “balanced” increase in the state’s tobacco tax that would raise revenue and deter young people from smoking while not harming state tobacco retailers.

Stadelman said the approximately 50-minute speech will be an opportunity for Tomblin to look back on successful initiatives and address ways to build on those programs. That will include new initiatives to fight the statewide substance abuse problem, and to advance workforce development programs, he said.

“He has some exciting new things, not only in developing our workforce, but in diversifying our economy,” Stadelman said.

For the straight second year, Democrat Tomblin will have to work with a Republican-controlled Legislature — although with a potential twist, depending on how the state Supreme Court rules on a dispute over whether the successor to former Sen. Daniel Hall, R-Wyoming, should be a Democrat or a Republican.

Hall ran as a Democrat when he was elected to represent the 9th Senatorial District in 2012, but he switched his party affiliation to Republican after the November 2014 elections to break a 17-17 deadlock in the Senate.

Hall resigned from the Senate on Jan. 4 to take a job as a state liaison for the National Rifle Association.

Tomblin, on Monday, notified the court that he plans to honor “the mandate of the voters” and appoint a Democrat to replace Hall, unless the court directs otherwise. Republicans have filed briefs with the court arguing that Hall’s successor should be a Republican and asking the court to hear oral arguments on the matter.

Barring any other party switches, replacing Hall with a Democrat would again create a 17-17 tie in the Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, who was ousted as Senate president after the 2014 election, said Tuesday he believes that Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, would continue to preside over the Senate under that scenario, since he was elected last January to a two-year term as president.

However, Kessler said a 17-17 split in the Senate could slow or stop many GOP mandates this session, including expected legislation to make West Virginia a right-to-work state, to repeal prevailing-wage laws and Common Core public education standards and to authorize charter schools, among other issues.

“Last year, they just ran a bunch of things over us, knowing they had 18 votes and we couldn’t stop them,” Kessler said.

A 17-17 tie would necessitate deliberation and compromise in the Senate, he said, “Instead of just running a lot of out-of-state-driven policy agendas.”

Kessler added, “If nothing else, the 17-17 tie would assure that the days of, “If we pass it, we can override a veto” are behind us.”

Last year, the Legislature overrode the governor’s veto of a late-term abortion ban, and Republican leaders had indicated they planned to take up a bill allowing people to conceal-carry handguns without state permits early in this session to allow time to override a veto. Last year, Tomblin vetoed a similar bill over concerns from law enforcement.

While many states require a two-thirds majority vote to override gubernatorial vetoes, the West Virginia Constitution requires a simple majority vote in both houses of the Legislature. As Kessler noted, a 17-17 tie vote in the Senate would defeat a veto override motion.

Neither Cole nor House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, responded to requests Tuesday to comment on the upcoming legislative session.

House Democrats, meanwhile, unveiled their legislative priorities during a news conference Tuesday.

That includes an increase in the tobacco tax, with the first $120 million of revenue dedicated to raising Public Employee Insurance Agency employer premium contributions to alleviate pending severe increases in co-pays, deductibles and out-of-pocket maximums for teachers and public employees covered by the health insurance plan.

House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said failure to increase funding for PEIA would effectively amount to pay cuts for those public employees.

Democrats also said they will oppose right-to-work legislation and the repeal of the prevailing-wage law, saying those proposals would cut wages for workers.

“I can’t imagine why anyone would go down the road of cutting construction wages in our state,” Miley said.

While they lack the votes in the House to advance their priorities, Democrats said they hope to raise awareness and influence public opinion on those issues.

“We hope we can work in a bipartisan manner with Republicans,” Miley said, “but we don’t believe they share the same passions and priorities as we share.”