After more than four hours of debate — including the rejection of more than a dozen amendments to increase spending for various programs — the West Virginia House of Delegates passed its version of the budget bill on a 95-5 vote Wednesday, setting up a showdown with the Senate over spending priorities.
That includes the House’s key commitment to increase spending for the state’s foster care system by $16.8 million — a proposal that is being gutted in the Senate — while the Senate is pushing for $7.7 million in funding for a new intermediate appeals court and $2.8 million for judicial pay raises, funding excluded from the version of the budget passed by the House on Wednesday.
House Finance Chairman Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, said the House is committed to spend the remaining three days of the 2020 regular session defending its budget priorities.
“The members of this body have spoken loud and clear that our No. 1 priority is to eliminate the foster care crisis,” he said.
The House and Senate will have to resolve a number of differences in the House’s $4.579 billion general revenue budget and the Senate’s more austere $4.558 billion budget. Both budgets will require cuts from the current 2019-20 state spending plan, which totals $4.693 billion.
On Wednesday, the House adopted the House Finance Committee’s strike-and-insert amendment that replaced the contents of Senate Bill 150 with the House’s version of the budget — an amendment that did resolve one difference in the two versions of the budget bill.
The amendment adds $3.3 million to the state National Guard budget, to open a second Mountaineer ChalleNGe Academy for at-risk 16- to 18-year-olds on part of the former West Virginia University Tech campus in Montgomery.
Delegates heralded the funding as a way to turn around the lives of at-risk teens and to bolster the economically struggling Upper Kanawha Valley.
“It’s a wonderful win for the community. It’s a wonderful win for these at-risk students,” Delegate Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, said while citing high graduation and success rates for students at the existing academy in Preston County.
“Eastern Kanawha County and Western Fayette County have been through some very difficult times with the energy sector and, more recently, with the loss of West Virginia Tech,” he added.
Delegates spent much of Wednesday afternoon rejecting, largely on party-line votes, more than a dozen amendments offered by Democrat members to increase spending for various programs. Amendments rejected included proposals to provide:
- $200,000 for the Drug Free Mothers and Babies program.
- $500,000 in increased funding for legal services for domestic violence victims.
- $1 million in additional funding for community food banks around the state.
- $500,000 in additional funding for domestic violence prevention programs.
- $100,000 for the West Virginia State Police to purchase bulletproof vests.
- About $700,000 in increased funding for the Public Service Commission’s Consumer Protection Division.
- $2.65 million to restore funding for a defunct state program for summer employment for at-risk youth.
- $2 million in additional funding for secondary road maintenance.
- $2.4 million to fund MARC commuter rail service into the Eastern Panhandle through general revenue.
- $8 million to the governor’s civil contingency fund to deal with a potential coronavirus epidemic in the state.
A number of the proposals would have taken funding from a $150 million Medicaid surplus the budget sets aside in a “lockbox” to offset future shortfalls for the health care for the state’s poor, elderly and disabled. Each time, Householder called for rejection of the amendments, saying they would take money away from the state’s most needy — comments that drew a rebuke from Delegate Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia.
“So we’re telling people in West Virginia, you’re not needy enough. We’re telling the people of West Virginia, we’re not going to give you no boots, forget about the bootstraps,” she said, adding, “We’re telling Mountaineers this cannot be a destination state; it’s a departure state.”
Delegates also rejected one amendment to cut spending — a proposal by Delegate Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, to reduce a proposed $19.91 million increase in the West Virginia Supreme Court’s budget to $9.91 million, a irony not lost on some delegates.
“We’ve decided it’s not worth funding babies. We’ve decided it’s not worth funding domestic violence survivors,” said Delegate Sammi Brown, D-Jefferson, who ultimately voted against the bill.
Conversely, some delegates argued the proposed budget bill does not go far enough in cutting spending.
Delegate Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, warned that the state should be cutting spending in preparation for a major downturn in the national economy, to avoid revisiting the budget impasses of 2016 and 2017.
“This spending gorge is not going to last much longer,” he said.
McGeehan was one of five “no” votes on the bill. Others included Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, who argued that a rush to have final passage of the budget bill by the 60th day of the regular session is unconstitutional and counterproductive, and Delegate Jim Butler, R-Mason.
“We have four more days to make important decisions for the state of West Virginia,” Doyle said, “and passing this budget today forecloses those options many of us want going forward.”
Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, said he would not support the bill after his amendment to include funding for dealing with a potential coronavirus crisis was rejected.
“I cannot support this budget because we have no money for the coronavirsus,” he said. “That is malfeasance. That is negligence.”
The Senate version of the budget includes $2 million for emergency response to the coronavirus, one of multiple variations between the bills that will have to be hashed out, potentially in a House-Senate conference committee.