Tensions, tempers rise in budget deliberations

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Tensions, tempers rise in budget deliberations
By Pamela Pritt,  Register-Herald Reporter

Nine amendments to the House budget bill that would have raided money from higher education institutions from around the state caused such a stir on the House floor Thursday evening that Speaker Tim Armstead felt compelled to leave his podium and address the body from his seat. 

The amendments, which were offered by Delegates Ron Walters, R-Kanawha, and Ray Canterbury, R-Greenbrier, and were subsequently withdrawn, would have taken more than $51 million from eight colleges and universities, including WVU-Tech's $7.9 million, which left the state's contribution to Tech at $0. 

During the initial debate, which would have cut Fairmont State University by $15.2 million, House members were emotional and angry over the amendments, goaded by Walters' and Canterbury's refusal to answer questions about the amendments. 

Delegate Mike Caputo, D-Marion, was incensed by the proposed cuts to the university in his county, which he said was "part of him." Caputo's voice was at near echo-level in the chamber as he said Walters and Canterbury "didn't have the courage" to answer a question about stripping money from a college not in their districts. 

Other delegates rose with emotional floor speeches before Armstead left his podium about 40 minutes into the debate. The Speaker said voters will judge lawmakers' actions. 

"They're going to hold us all accountable, every one of us, if we can't come together and establish a budget," Armstead said. "I truly think this is a defining moment and it's going to be defined by either pettiness and politics or it will be defined by statesmanship."

He alluded to talks he's had with Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, saying those "have been productive."

But Walters and Canterbury were using the amendments as "teachable moments." 

Walters said in closing debate on his first amendment that he wanted House members "to see what a crisis really looks like." He said the state will have a crisis on its hands when 760,000 West Virginians do not have health insurance, just one of the pressures lawmakers are facing if there's no budget by June 30.

"We've got issues to deal with," Walters said. "On July 1, the State Police won't work, public employees won't work, we won't renew licenses, we won't do environmental inspections. People will have to decide if they're going to get drugs or they're going to get nothing. Teachers aren't going back to work. You want to talk about a crisis? That's a crisis."

He said if the House doesn't work together, the state could see a "crisis you won't recover from."

"Is this what we've really reduced ourselves to, lines in the sand?" he asked. 

Canterbury said delegates are fooling themselves if they think they can vote against revenue measures and not feel some pain in their own districts. 

"I don't think anyone is getting through this unscathed," Canterbury said.

The House of Delegates budget bill was on second reading Thursday evening and will be up for passage today. A motion to suspend the rules and pass the budget last night failed. 

House Finance Chair Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, said the bill incorporates all amendments from his committee, as well as some portions of the Senate's version of the bill. The House budget includes $48 million in cuts and roughly $48 million in sweeps (of one time money) and the "expiration of $143 million from the Rainy Day Fund" to balance the budget. 

That number is sure to get the attention of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who has said he will veto any budget that uses more than $90 million of the Rainy Day Fund. Tomblin's budget was balanced on three tax increase measures, only one of which has reached a vote in the chambers. SB 1005 would have raised $78 million using an increase in cigarette taxes, other tobacco products and a new tax on e-cigarette fluids. 

The Senate narrowly passed the bill, but it failed in the House 44-55. 

The House passed two bills during the morning session — one that included $63.7 million in supplemental appropriations to balance the 2016 budget and one that expires the Racetrack Modernization Fund and Historic Resort Modernization Fund. 

The House Finance Committee amended SB 1002 to take more from the Rainy Day Fund than the Senate approved. The bill now returns to the upper chamber for senators to either approve of the amendments or to put the bill into a conference committee. 

HB 105, which diverts $14 million from modernization funds to general revenue was not on the governor's call. House members debated at length the merits of the bill, with members from districts with racetracks arguing against the bill, which passed 64-31, with five not voting. 

If Tomblin vetoes the budget, it would take a two-thirds majority vote in both chambers for an override.