Finger-pointing starting on budget impasse

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Finger-pointing starting on budget impasse
Hoppy's Commentary | Hoppy Kercheval – Talkline host

Former Governor Arch Moore had some famous fights with the Legislature over the budget.  During one dispute, Moore appeared before the state Supreme Court to argue his case for cutting $2 million from the Legislature’s proposed budget.

According to John Morgan’s book West Virginia Governors, “His argument ranged from colonial times, when governors of the 13 colonies had practically no powers, to modern times in which there is a strong emergence of executive powers.”

Classic Arch Moore.

West Virginia’s current Governor Earl Ray Tomblin is, in many ways, the polar opposite of Moore. Tomblin avoids the spotlight and seeks compromise over confrontation. He would rather negotiate a reasonable political accommodation than throw down the gauntlet.

However, watch for Tomblin to become more forceful this week about the current budget impasse, starting with his appearance this morning on Metronews Talkline.

The administration is particularly frustrated with the Republican leadership of the House of Delegates.  The always cautious Tomblin may still be reserved with his criticism, but members of his administration believe House Speaker Tim Armstead and Finance Committee Chairman Eric Nelson are failing to deliver a viable spending plan.

Armstead and Nelson are battling serious disagreements within their own caucus over how to craft a balanced spending plan.  Tomblin’s proposal for a .45-cent increase in the cigarette tax flamed out last week in the House Finance Committee 21-3, leaving a hole of approximately $170 million in next year’s budget.

Nelson says he could have used some help from the administration in gathering Democratic votes.  “The push from the executive branch was not there,” Nelson told me on Talkline Monday.  “It needed bipartisan support.”

Chris Stadelman, Tomblin’s Director of Communications, pushed back.  “The reality is that Republicans have 64 votes in the House of Delegates, so for the majority party to say they can’t pass a budget without Democratic support is disingenuous to say the least,” Stadelman said.

Nelson also wants to take more money out of the Rainy Day Fund to balance the budget, saying that’s what the surplus is for.  Tomblin doesn’t want to go there, and has vowed to veto a proposed budget that relies too heavily on dipping into the $784 million surplus.

However, the law that created the fund does say the “Legislature is authorized and may make an appropriation from the Revenue Shortfall Reserve Fund for revenue shortfalls, for emergency revenue needs caused by acts of God or natural disasters or for other fiscal needs as determined solely by the Legislature.”

The regular session ends at midnight Saturday and no budget agreement will be reached by then.  The Governor can extend the session to work on the budget, and he’ll likely do that, but don’t expect Tomblin to keep lawmakers around for long if they’re not making progress.

So even though this legislative session is winding down, with no consensus on the horizon on the budget, in some ways heaviest lifting is just about to begin.