House, Senate conferees do quick work on budget bill
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With little change from the current budget -- either in increased revenues or new programs or pay raises -- House and Senate budget conferees completed work Wednesday on the 2013-14 budget bill in a comparatively quick three days.
That sets the stage for the Legislature on Friday to pass the budget plan, outlining how state agencies are to spend a total of $11.6 billion in state, federal, Road Fund and Lottery revenues.
Then, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is expected to call the Legislature into an afternoon-long special session, the key issue of which is expected to be legislation to provide tax credits needed to assure the reopening of the Century Aluminum plant in Jackson County.
Action on the bill, which would provide up to $40 million of state tax credits to offset electricity costs for the plant, is contingent on a vote Thursday evening by Century retirees to accept the company's offer to partially restore health benefits.
Tomblin spokeswoman Amy Shuler Goodwin said there may be additional bills taken up in special session, but nothing has been finalized.
"We are focused squarely on Century Aluminum right now," she said.
Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, said he was advised there are two to three bills that Tomblin will have to veto because of technical errors that could be corrected and passed again in special session.
He said there have also been discussions on revisiting one or two bills that died at the end of the regular session Saturday, including a bill to require clearance from medical providers before high school athletes who have sustained concussions or other head injuries could return to sports practice or games.
During Wednesday's brief floor session, House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, told delegates plans are to limit the special session to an agenda that can be completed Friday afternoon.
"It is our intention to complete our work on Friday and adjourn sine die," he said. "The only items we'd do are items we can complete in a brief special session."
A key change in the budget bill approved by conferees Wednesday will direct an additional $14 million of 2011-12 budget surplus to Medicaid, in addition to $28 million set aside in the bill submitted by Tomblin.
"We didn't get as much money into Medicaid as we would have liked, but we did get a sufficient amount for next year," said Senate Finance Chairman Roman Prezioso, D-Marion.
Projections are the state will have to come up with as much as an additional $200 million in the 2013-14 budget to keep up with costs for the state-managed health care plan for the poor, elderly and disabled.
The bill also directs an additional $2.5 million of surplus revenue to state substance abuse treatment programs, for a total appropriation of $7.5 million. The increase was part of an agreement Saturday evening to get Tomblin's bill addressing the state's substance abuse issues passed.
The budget also includes $176,000 for the new Herbert Henderson Office of Minority Affairs in the governor's office.
That funding will cover salaries for an executive director and administrative assistant for the office, which is to advocate for issues of concern for minority groups in the state.
The three-day budget conference was brief compared to recent years, when the deliberations have stretched out for five to six days.
"This is probably one of the smoothest budget conferences we've ever had," Prezioso said.
House Finance Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo, added, "Believe it or not, when we hit 'total' at the end, it balanced out."
Reach Phil Kabler at email@example.com or 304-348-1220.