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Statehouse Beat: Budget fights getting started in second half of legislative session

It would be fitting if arguably one of the most dismal legislative sessions in a generation ended with the first budget impasse in nearly 30 years.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin last week voiced his displeasure with what he sees as the Legislature’s inertia — with the session now half over — in addressing the $820 million of funding deficits in the current and 2016-17 budget, and its failure to act on a couple of modest tax increases to raise about $130 million a year of new revenue needed for his 2016-17 budget to balance.

Looks like Senate Finance will begin work on his tobacco tax increase (SB 420) next week, although Chairman Mike Hall, R-Putnam, said he has no idea whether there’s any chance it will pass in the House.

(I think Delegate Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, had the best description for the state’s current ultra-low cigarette tax, calling it a state subsidy for smokers.)

Meanwhile, I suspect House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson’s request for agencies to detail how they would cut an additional 6.5 percent out of their budgets is less to provide a road-map for slashing budgets as to provide members with a cautionary tale of layoffs and program closures that agencies would be forced to make if they saw their budgets cut by about one-third in four years.

While legislative leaders were able to give the governor the single-finger salute with override votes on his vetoes of right-to-work (SB 1) and the prevailing wage repeal (HB 4005), appropriations bills require two-thirds vote to override, giving Tomblin the upper hand in budget negotiations — plus, nobody yields the line-item veto pen better than the governor.

Perhaps we’ll see repeats of the budget impasses of 1987 and 1988, years that saw budget bills finally passed in May and June. Given that the first half of the 2016 session has been a disaster, one wonders if taxpayers would want to pocket the costs of keeping the Legislature in town all spring.

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Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse is quick to call out instances of abuse of the judicial system, except possibly, when it benefits them.

Ongoing efforts by the Beth Walker campaign to stall the awarding of public campaign financing to Justice Brent Benjamin and Beckley lawyer and former legislator Bill Wooton is petty at best, malicious at worst.

Walker representatives, including Cole for governor spokesman/consultant Kent Gates, raised every possible technicality to the State Election Commission, including alleging that Wooton filed his application for certification a day late — although the Supreme Court public campaign financing law has no set deadlines.

Likewise, they challenged every single qualifying contribution for Benjamin, and tried to get him disqualified for allegedly filing an exploratory campaign finance report late.

They also demanded, unsuccessfully, that the SEC hold up awarding the public financing, pending possible appeals to circuit court. Commissioners concluded the financing law requires them to award funding immediately after a candidate is certified.

With the nonpartisan judicial elections coming up on May 10, the strategy is obvious and distasteful, obstruct and delay the funding as long as possible in hopes of crippling the Benjamin and Wooton campaigns.

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The final lobbyist financial disclosures for calendar year 2015 have been filed with the state Ethics Commission, with $88,661 of spending reported from September through December, bringing the year’s total to a record $691,517.

Couple of items stand out in the latest filings: One was that the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce was active during the period.

Of course, the Chamber hosted its annual meeting at The Greenbrier Sept. 2-4, spending $2,695 on meals, beverages and lodging for legislative leaders, including $450.88 for Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, and for House Judiciary Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer; $416.12 for Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan; as well as $642.53 for former Delegate Amanda Pasdon, R-Monongalia and $406.88 for former Sen. Daniel Hall, flipped R, Wyoming.

(Sens. Bill Cole, R-Mercer, and Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, and Delegates Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, and Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, had meals on the Chamber’s tab, but no overnight stays.)

The state Chamber also hosted a board retreat at The Greenbrier, Dec. 3-4, attended by Cole, Armstead, Pasdon, Delegate/Sen. Bob Ashley, R-Roane, and Delegate Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, at a total cost of $1,456.

And on Nov. 16, the Chamber hosted a charter schools reception at the Four Points Sheraton in Charleston, attended by Delegates Butler, Statler, Pasdon, Overington, Espinosa, Kelly, Folk and Fast, and Sens. Leonhart, Carmichael, Trump and Gaunch, at a cost of $93.76 each.

If, as Cole said at the Chamber’s annual meeting, the Legislature’s agenda is a page out of the Chamber’s playbook, leadership certainly have had ample opportunities to make sure they’re following the Chamber’s game plan.

The other point is, based on the disclosures, there must be a lot of disappointed lobbyists who bought meals and drinks for Daniel Hall during the reporting period, only to have him skip out before the session started. That includes Energy Corp. of America lobbyist Larry Pack Jr., who took Hall out to eat five times in September and October.

We also learned that President Cole is fond of the exclusive Chop House restaurant.

Lobbyist Larry Swann reported taking Cole, Espinosa, Eric Nelson, and Delegate John O’Neal, R-Raleigh, to dinner there on Oct. 19, at a cost of $77.58 each.

Swann also reported taking Cole to dinner at the Chop House on Sept. 24, along with lobbyists Chris Hamilton, Joe Letnaunchyn and Corky DeMarco and Cole spokesman Gates in attendance. The lobbyists presumably split the bill, since Swann listed his expense at $30.04.

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Finally, the most bewildering comment of the week — assuming Delegate Tom Fast, R-Fayette, is permanently retired from consideration — came from Delegate Mike Azinger, R-Wood, who in support of the RFRA bill, commented, “In 1965, in the ’60s, America starting veering off course.”

I put in a call to ask what event he was referencing, but didn’t hear back. Speculation on Twitter was passage of the Civil Rights Act, although that was in 1964, or the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (I thought it might be the premiere of “My Mother The Car,” widely considered the worst network television sitcom of all time.)

Then I discovered that, ironically, 1965 was the year Azinger was born.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1220, or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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