Budget going to Senate floor; House Finance advances its version to full floor Monday night

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Budget going to Senate floor; House Finance advances its version to full floor Monday night
By MetroNews Staff

After months of talks, budget bills could be taken up on the floors of both state Senate and state House of Delegates as early as Tuesday.

Members of both the Senate Finance Committee and House Finance Committee met again Monday afternoon for budget work in their respective chambers at the State Capitol where a Special Session continued.

After little debate, the Senate Finance Committee approved the Senate version of the budget bill with a 9-8 vote along party lines during a meeting that was moved to the Senate chamber and began with a budget presentation from Michael Cook, a Senate staff member.

During about a 5-minute afternoon floor session, the Senate moved its version of the budget to second reading.

In an evening meeting, the House Finance committee also sent its version of the budget to the full floor.

As proposed, the Senate budget included a combination of account sweeps and agency reductions, new tobacco tax revenues and withdrawals from the Rainy Day Funds to fill the projected shortfall in the 2017 budget of $270 million.

If approved, the Senate budget would pull about $135 million from West Virginia’s Rainy Day Funds to balance the budget.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler (D-Marshall, 02) said Governor Earl Ray Tomblin was unlikely to sign off on such an amount. “I’m not confident that this will fly and survive his veto pen,” Kessler said.

Senate Finance Committee Chair Mike Hall (R-Putnam, 04) responded this way: “From my perspective, the Rainy Day money is large, but it’s about equal to the baseline budget cuts in this overall budget, as presented.” The baseline budget cuts for 2017, he said, totaled about $122 million compared with the current 2016 baseline budget.

Also within the proposed Senate budget is two percent in additional across-the-board reductions to state agencies with a list of exceptions including judicial, the state Department of Health and Human Resources, public education, higher education, seniors, State Police and corrections, according to the Senate budget presentation.

The remaining reductions are on top of Governor Earl Ray Tomblin’s four-percent cut.

Agency heads will have the discretion to determine how best to implement the reductions in those cases, according to Hall. Senator John Unger (D-Berkeley, 16) questioned that, citing the need for transparency within the state budget.

Constitutional officers are facing additional ten percent across-the-board reductions in the current version of the Senate budget.

“It’s a budget I’m not happy with,” Hall admitted, before noting July 1 — the start of the new budget year — is coming quickly.

The House’s proposed budget was reportedly set to include cuts in the following areas totaling nearly $80 million:

Eliminating Vacancies $12 million
*Greyhound Purses $15.4 million
Legislature $10 million
*Racetrack Modernization $9 million
*School Aid Formula $15.2 million
Executive Branch $1.62 million
Administration $123,000
Commerce $4.154 million
Public Education $7.82 million
DMAPS $2 million
Dept. of Revenue $1.5 million
Transportation $277,000

The starred items were not part of Governor Earl Ray Tomblin’s original call for the Special Session.

Last week, Senate President Bill Cole (R-Mercer, 06) and House Speaker Tim Armstead (R-Kanawha, 40) sent a letter to Tomblin asking that those measures along with several others be included on the Special Session agenda.

In his response, Tomblin said he would only approve additions or alternatives to the initial call only “if they are part of a comprehensive, realistic solution to the state’s budget situation.”

If approved, those additional bills would end discretionary transfers to the Licensed Racetrack Modernization Fund, revise the School Aid Formula through the elimination of the Growth County Facilities Act and defund the West Virginia Greyhound Breeding Development Fund.

Early Monday afternoon, members of the House of Delegates were taking up the tobacco tax bill which, if finalized in the coming days, could generate more than $70 million in new revenues for the state.

Budget talks have been ongoing since the close of the 2016 Regular Legislative Session in March.