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For a fourth straight year, the Legislature passed the state budget bill before the end of the 60-day regular session, but not without heated debate on the Senate floor over whether the $4.495 billion general revenue budget effectively cuts the base funding for West Virginia University and Marshall University.

The amended version of the 2021-22 state spending plan cuts the general revenue budget for WVU by $16.6 million from its requested appropriation, and cuts Marshall’s general revenue budget by $9.7 million. Those cuts would be made up using projected surplus revenue from the current 2020-21 budget year.

“We’re talking about two institutions of higher education that I think deserve their funding in general revenue,” said Sen. Robert Plymale, D-Wayne, one of several senators raising concerns that the budget plan effectively lowers the base budgets for WVU and Marshall going forward.

Plymale and other senators encouraged the Senate to refuse to concur in the House amendments and send the budget bill into a House-Senate conference committee.

“That’s why we have budget conferees. We need to go back to do this,” he said. For the past three years, the Legislature has avoided the traditional budget conference, which in the past has taken place in brief extended sessions.

Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, questioned funding the two universities out of surplus when the budget bill also leaves more than $72 million of general revenue unexpended — funding he suggested cynics might say is being set aside to offset a future attempt to slash state personal income taxes.

The latest version of the budget bill was amended and passed by the House of Delegates Friday night on a 84-16 vote. It passed the Senate after an extended debate on a party line 23-11 vote.

Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, in his freshman year as Senate Finance Committee chairman, argued Saturday that House leadership was adamant about shifting part of the funding for WVU and Marshall to budget surplus. He said, given the current atmosphere in the House, further attempts to negotiate could lead to even more severe cuts.

Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, left the podium to address the Senate, saying further attempts to amend the budget would be a “foolish maneuver,” similar to the House’s 100-0 vote Friday to refuse to concur on the Senate’s amended version of the House’s income tax cut plan (HB 3300).

“You can have a budget conference, and you can drag it all the way to June 30, but you’ll accomplish nothing at all,” Blair told critics of the plan. He later refused to yield to questions.

The amended budget provides $92.74 million of general revenue for WVU, and $39.28 million for Marshall — about $4.5 million less for WVU and about $7.6 million less for Marshall than the governor’s budget plan, and significantly less than each institution’s budget requests.

An initial version of the House budget had much steeper cuts up front — budgeting $79.02 million for WVU and $36.76 million for Marshall — but used larger amounts of budget surplus to backfill those reductions.

The plan approved by the Legislature provides $16.6 million for WVU and $9.7 million for Marshall from anticipated unspent funds from the current 2020-21 budget year to bring both institutions up to their general revenue funding requests. Through March, the state had a budget surplus of about $237 million. The budget year ends June 30.

Tarr assured senators there will be more than enough surplus funds to cover those allocations, and the total of $58.7 million of surplus appropriations in the bill.

The budget bill had been in limbo through Friday as both houses worked on variations of bills to slash state personal income taxes, either of which would have required severe cuts in state spending.

However, the House of Delegates earlier Friday emphatically delivered the death blow to the tax cut proposal favored by Gov. Jim Justice by rejecting it in a unanimous 100-0 vote.

On Friday, House Finance Chairman Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, billed the latest version of the 2021-22 budget as a House-Senate compromise plan, telling delegates, “I am asking you to agree to a compromise agreement between the two houses.”

The budget appropriates about $4.495 billion in general revenue — about $74 million less than the governor’s original $4.569 billion budget proposal, but larger than previous House and Senate versions, both of which made major cuts to WVU and Marshall, and in the case of the Senate budget eliminated funding for West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

As approved Saturday, the Budget Bill provides $3.77 million funding for the Educational Broadcasting Authority, which operates Public Broadcasting, about $60,000 less than the governor’s budget request.

The compromise budget appropriates a total of $58.7 million of surplus funds, including $17.5 million for the Milton flood wall, and $7 million for the state Department of Tourism, which along with $7 million in general revenue fully funds Justice’s request for $14 million for that agency.

Leaving the $72 million unexpended could provide a buffer for the Legislature going into the 2022-23 budget plan.

The Justice administration this year did not provide legislators with the required six-year financial plan, a report that breaks down expected state revenue and expenses for the current budget year, the upcoming budget bill year, and for four years into the future.

While there is no 2021 financial plan, the 2020 plan projected budget deficits in excess of $150 million each year for 2022-23, 2023-24 and 2024-25.

Traditionally, legislators have extended the 60-day regular session for as few as two and as many as eight days to complete work on the budget, after determining which bills with financial implications passed on the final day of the regular session.

Current leadership has directed that bills with fiscal impact be passed by both houses by the final week of the session, so that House and Senate Finance committees can complete work on the budget plan by the 60th day.

This year, Justice issued a proclamation on Thursday extending the session by one day, if needed, to complete work on the budget. With Saturday’s vote, that extension will not be needed.

In a related matter, the Senate Saturday night passed a joint resolution to hold a statewide referendum in the November 2022 general election on a proposed constitutional amendment that, if adopted, would give the Legislature authority to set personal property tax rates for business inventory, equipment and machinery and on motor vehicles (HJR 3).

Given the late hour, the Senate withdrew pending amendments to the resolution — including one that would have moved the referendum election to July 24, 2021 — that would have required further consideration by the House.

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

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