By Brad McElhinny, WV MetroNews
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice said he will play a more direct role in legislative budget discussions, particularly relating to a teacher pay raise that he has backed for months.
“What I want to do is to try to bring everybody together, if it be a special session or whatever it be and try to make some real progress,” Justice said during a midday press conference.
The governor said he will talk to each caucus, attempting in particular to get the teacher pay raise passed.
“I’m going to go to the caucus of the Senate and the House on the Republican side, as well as the House and Senate on the Democratic side, and I just want to talk to them. There’s still a lot of really good we can salvage out of this session, and I’ve got an idea.
“I want to really bring everyone to the table. There’s certain things there’s no question the Senate Republicans would like to have. They call it reform. I’d like to call it the betterment of our education system, and our schools for our kids and our teachers and everybody.”
Justice said he’s been in discussions already, but with leadership.
“Now I want to go talk to everybody,” he said.
Additional conversations are continuing on how West Virginia’s House and Senate can agree on a budget.
“House Finance, Senate Finance and the Governor’s Office — look, we’re all trying to have the same goal: to have a budget done in Day 61 that everybody can work with, live with and be able to manage,” said Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley.
The state Senate put off action on the budget until Tuesday. Blair said the Senate had not yet officially received the House’s version of the budget so it didn’t act Monday.
“So far we’re tracking well. I can’t guarantee anything. That’ll be as the clock ticks louder where the compromises will take place and things will get done,” Blair said.
Blair said the Senate intends to amend its version into the House’s, leading soon to a conference committee to iron out the differences.
The House of Delegates passed its budget on Saturday.
There are a few big differences.
The House budget includes a pay raise for teachers and school service personnel totaling about $67 million. The House also reflects the first year of a severance tax cut for steam coal, amounting to $30 million next year.
The Senate budget doesn’t have those, but it does have $110 million for “Randy’s Dream,” which is for secondary roads maintenance.
Blair said the roads money could come from “Roads to Prosperity” road bond money. He described $55 million to pay down bond debt, with $80 million still available.
“Why not take that $80 million and use it for Randy’s Dream and get the secondary roads?” Blair said.
Doing so could make it unnecessary to transfer general revenue to the Road Fund for secondary roads work.
House Finance Chairman Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, also felt like progress is being made toward agreement.
“Every morning, we meet in the Governor’s Office with my Senate colleagues and myself and House leadership. We’re just making sure things are on target as these things cross the finish line,” Householder said, describing remaining bills that have a fiscal impact.
“I think we’re going to be fine. Remember, the House passed a budget on Day 53. Today is Day 55. I’d like to have everything done by Day 58 if possible.”
Householder suggested there is some agreement about how to handle “Randy’s Dream.” He said it’s lined up to be on the House Finance agenda for Tuesday.
“I like the concept, and I think it’s something we can work on and get into a little better agreement,” Householder said.