Legislature returns to consider budget but bill still isn’t ready

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Legislature returns to consider budget but bill still isn’t ready
By Brad McElhinny, WV MetroNews

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state Senate and House of Delegates adjourned Monday without the introduction of a bill meant to form the foundation of a budget for the coming fiscal year.

That was after the Justice administration issued a memo warning state agencies to start preparing for a budget shutdown and also after submitting a bill allowing furloughs of state employees.

The revenue bill that lawmakers were expecting was submitted for drafting at 9:30 a.m. Monday and made it through that process.

But people in the House, the Senate and the administration all privately said the reason the bill was sent back to be reworked was that the Republican majority in the Senate, particularly Senator Robert Karnes, objected to the way the bill expressed triggers to lower the personal income tax.

So both houses quickly recessed when they initially returned to session at 11 a.m. after a 10-day hiatus.

When the House and Senate returned to session about 3:30 p.m., the Senate took only about 5 minutes to adjourn again with House Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, explaining the delay as a formatting issue. Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, asked if lawmakers would at least be able to see a bill tonight.

“Maybe sometime this evening or tomorrow morning we’ll get a copy and see what’s in those particular bills,” Prezioso said in an interview following the afternoon floor session. “I know there are a lot of different numbers thrown around and a lot of variations on the content of the bill. Until we see and read through it, we don’t know exactly what’s in the bill.”

The bill that was expected to be introduced Monday included 6.85 percent state sales tax that would also lower the personal income tax by an average of 20 percent over two years.

The bill aims to balance the budget for the coming fiscal year by starting the sales tax increase six months before the lowered income tax takes effect, producing a revenue cushion.

One factor lawmakers want to judge is the bill’s effects in coming years — particularly whether it is likely to produce greater budget gaps in coming years as the personal income tax is reduced.

Prezioso, like others, said recent versions of the revenue bill have been so fluid it’s hard to determine their effects.

“That changes almost hourly,” he said. “We still have to see the final bill because we don’t know exactly what’s in it. We haven’t been part of the negotiations of defining what the bill should be or what the issues as far as we’re concerned are. We’re just having to wait to see.”

The first two days the Legislature was in session earlier this month, there were delays over changes to severance taxes and, again, to the personal income tax structure.

Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns said there have been some disconnects about what the negotiating parties have believed was an agreement versus what has appeared in the bills.
“It requires some tweaking at times. I think that’s where they are right now, so we’re just waiting on that,” Ferns, R-Ohio, said this afternoon.

Ferns said he still would expect solid support in the Senate. He said some changes to the bill, such as the inclusion of some business-to-business taxes, were meant to incorporate the “broaden-the-base” strategy of the Republican majority in the House.

“I think the changes that have been made have been attempts to accommodate some of the suggestions made by the House to alleviate some of the concerns made by House members, so we’re trying to take input given by the House during discussions over the last 10 days.”

Debate over the budget flared up during the House’s afternoon floor session, even with no bill to consider.

Republican delegates attempted to turn the tables on a budget countdown that had been the domain of Democrats during the regular session.

Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, asked Democrat Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, about a budget countdown clock that Bates has been keeping at his desk. Gearheart wondered aloud where the budget bill is as the state gets closer to the start of new fiscal year.

House Majority Leader Daryl Cowles echoed those sentiments, noting that not only had the revenue bill lawmakers were expected to work on not yet been introduced but also an actual budget bill has not been a part of the governor’s special session call.

Democrats, including Kanawha Delegate Larry Rowe pushed back on some of that — noting that they had urged the House to move an earlier version of a revenue bill to the Finance Committee. Instead, most of the Republican majority in the House twice voted to kill those versions of the revenue bill during the first two days of the special session.

House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, recalled that 10 days ago he suggested that if the revenue bill were assigned to the Finance Committee it would still be there for consideration or to be amended.

Both the House and Senate planned to return at 11 a.m. Tuesday.