Regular legislative session ends with impasse on budget

Legislators closed out the 2016 regular session with a comparatively slow-paced 60th day — but facing an impasse on the 2016-17 state budget.

“I'm obviously going to have to call the Legislature back into special session,” Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Saturday evening, acknowledging that House-Senate budget conferees will not be able to reach agreement on the $4.3 billion state budget by next week.

With the session front-loaded to pass major legislation early so as to allow time to override gubernatorial vetoes, Saturday did not resemble 60th days of the past, which were marked by frenzied activity up to the final gavel at midnight.

However, the relative calmness of the final day was in contrast to the growing certainty of an impasse on the state budget plan — an issue exacerbated Saturday when the Senate allowed to die the House bill that would sweep some $72 million out of various state agency accounts to balance the House's version of the budget (HB 4742).

Without that revenue, the House's 2016-17 budget plan becomes unbalanced, a problem already facing the Senate's budget proposal, which relies on $139 million of tax increases, including $115 million of tobacco tax hikes — tax increases that were soundly rejected in the House of Delegates.

Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, R-Putnam, said Saturday he personally favors coming back in special session in May to complete the budget bill, saying that would give legislators a more precise handle on how much the current year's budget deficit will grow.

“We could go back home, we are in an election cycle obviously, and come back and be focused on this issue and this issue alone,” Hall said.

However, Tomblin said he does not favor that long a delay.

“We cannot wait to May. We have to start these conversations immediately,” said Tomblin, who said he will include tax increase proposals to balance the budget in his special session call.

“We've got to go back and either look at the tobacco tax or some other on-going source of revenue for the state,” he said, saying the alternative is to make draconian cuts in state spending.

“There's going to be layoffs. There's going to be facilities shut down,” Tomblin said, citing a report from state agencies earlier this session on how they would absorb an additional 6.5 percent spending cut.

While Tomblin said he was disappointed legislators will not be able to complete work on the budget next week, Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, offered more harsh comments.

“I've not remembered a time when we were on the last night of the session and there was no balanced budget proposal,” Unger said. “This is a major fiscally irresponsible failure.”

Meanwhile, reflecting the comparatively light schedule, the House completed work on the six bills on its calendar before noon Saturday, returning to session periodically during the day to act on bills returned from the Senate and conference committee reports.

Also during the final day of the session:

n The Senate confirmed six individuals whose confirmations had been blocked Wednesday because of their ties to organized labor or the state Democratic Party.

Outraged Senate Democrats had threatened to bring floor sessions to a crawl by requiring bills be read in their entirety, but Senate leaders quickly reached an accord.

“I think the President and Jeff worked together to resolve it,” Confirmations Committee Chairwoman Donna Boley, R-Pleasants, said Saturday, referring to Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, and Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall.

“Apologies were in order, and were made and accepted,” she added.

Boley had admitted Wednesday she had been provided by leadership with the list of names to be rejected in Confirmations Committee.

On the Senate floor Saturday, Boley made a separate motion to confirm the six. Those appointees included Kenny Perdue, state AFL-CIO president, to the Workforce Development Board; Elaine Harris, Communications Workers of America international representative, to the PEIA Finance Board; and state Democratic Party chairwoman Belinda Biafore to the state Women's Commission.

Also reappointed to the PEIA Finance Board were Troy Giatras and Mike Smith.

Providing $43.5 million of new state funding to cover PEIA premium increases has been an ongoing point of contention this session, with legislative leadership claiming the Finance Board members had mismanaged the health care plan. Democrats, however, contended leadership was “killing the messenger” to cover the Legislature's failure to adequately fund the health insurance program for teachers and public employees.

Harris said afterward she was pleased to be reappointed to the Finance Board, noting, “I think we have been responsible. Still, at the end of the day, it takes money.”

n The Senate rejected 6-28 a bill that would have taken $9 million a year of state matching funds the state's racetrack casinos currently use to upgrade their gaming areas. The funds would have instead gone to help balance the state budget (HB 4271).

Opponents of the measure said the funds are needed to help the state's casinos compete with larger, newer facilities in neighboring states, and to help maintain casino jobs. Kessler noted that people prefer to go to gaming facilities that are “glitzy and new.”

n Protesters gathered outside the Capitol for an afternoon rally to voice their displeasure and begin organizing opposition for this fall's elections.

Under a large banner reading “Remember in November,” speakers from unions, civil rights groups and various progressive organizations decried the work of the Legislature, specifically divisive issues like the right-to-work law and the failed Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“West Virginians want jobs, not guns; give us jobs, not guns,” said Owens Brown, president of the state branch of the NAACP. “Go out and vote in November and get these people out of here.”

n The Senate adopted a memorial resolution honoring former senator and longtime Senate clerk Darrell Holmes, who died in January at age 81. Holmes, a Sissonville native, served as clerk from 1989 to 2013.

“He was just part of the fabric of this place, and will be for many years to come,” Hall said.

Staff writer David Gutman contributed to this article.

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

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