Putting together the puzzle of the 2020-21 state budget bill got easier Saturday, when Gov. Jim Justice earlier submitted adjustments to his original budget proposal — revisions that freed up $20.5 million that was to have gone to help fund state pension plans for teachers and public employees.
That additional funding assured passage of the $4.574 billion 2020-21 state spending plan (SB 150) prior to the conclusion of the 60-day regular session of the Legislature for a third straight year.
House Finance Chairman Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, indicated Saturday afternoon that freeing up the $20 million made other pieces of the state spending plan fall into place, including paying for significant increases in reimbursements to foster care families included in the foster care reform bill passed Saturday evening (HB 4092).
“Keep in mind, much of the money he found, $16.9 million, is used for foster care,” Householder told the House of the governor’s revenue revisions. “Rest assured, it’s contained in the budget.”
Justice, in a letter to the Senate president and House speaker, indicated the state could meet actuarial requirements to keep the pension funds solvent through interest earnings on plan investments, freeing up $9.115 million the state otherwise would have contributed to the Teachers’ Retirement System, along with $14.67 million that would have gone into the Public Employees Retirement System.
That, along with some smaller increased funding requests, freed up a net of $20.5 million.
It is not unusual for governors to revise budget estimates between January and March, or for annual state contributions to pension funds to be reduced when earnings on pension fund investments exceed a 7.5% threshold in prior calendar years.
The Senate took up the revised budget bill shortly before 5 p.m. Saturday, a $4.574 billion general revenue budget that is about $5 million less than the House’s original proposal but about $16 million larger than the original Senate plan.
“I believe we’ve got a good compromise here,” Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, told the Senate prior to a 33-1 passage vote.
In addition to funding the increase to foster care reimbursements by $16.9 million — $100,000 more than the House budget originally provided — the revised budget provides an additional $17 million for Medicaid, and fully funds the state Division of Tourism from general revenue at $14 million.
In earlier versions of the bill, Tourism would have received $7 million in the base budget and would have been in line for $7 million of any surplus funds left unspent in the current 2019-20 budget when the budget year ends on June 30.
The budget also adopts a Senate proposal to set aside $2 million in the governor’s civil contingency fund for a public health emergency response to a potential coronavirus outbreak in West Virginia. It also restores a $1 million funding increase sought by Justice for community food banks.
It also restores $1.8 million of general revenue funds for operation of the MARC commuter passenger rail service in the Eastern Panhandle, funding that had previously been zeroed out of both the House and Senate versions of the budget.
“This is funded to the level the governor wanted of $2.8 million,” Blair said.
Legislators had previously passed two supplemental appropriation bills to help fully fund the state’s share of costs for the service for the next year.
The House and Senate had previously agreed to increase funding for Intellectual and Developmental Disability waivers for in-home and community care for people with developmental disability by nearly $20 million to eliminate a 1,000-person wait list, and to provide an additional $3.3 million to open a second Mountaineer Challenge Academy for at-risk 16- to 18-year-olds at the former West Virginia University Tech campus in Montgomery.
As approved Saturday, the budget leaves about $4.3 million of general revenue funds unappropriated, available if needed during the course of the budget year.
Shortly after 8 p.m. Saturday, the House passed the bill 96-3, sending it to the governor and marking the third straight year the Legislature has passed the budget bill during the 60-day regular session, without requiring a multi-day budget session.
Budget negotiations Saturday took place behind closed doors, rather than having the bill placed in a House-Senate conference committee to work out compromises — a process that drew criticism from veteran legislator Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson.
“We need a full, free and open budget conference that the public can see,” he said, adding, “This was not openly arrived at, and we all know that.”
Delegate Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, also called for transparency in the budget process in the future.
“We want to see the line-items. We want to know what we’re funding and not funding,” he said.
The budget process was also simplified by the defeat in the House Friday of a Senate bill to create an intermediate appeals court (SB 275). The Senate, in its version of the budget bill, had included $7.7 million to fund the new court’s startup and first six months of operation.
The budget was passed Saturday evening with one bill still pending with financial implications, to provide judicial pay raises (SB 597). The Senate budget had set aside $2.8 million for raises for all judicial officers, from magistrates to Supreme Court justices, while the House had amended the bill to phase in most of the raises over two years, postponing the first round of increases for all but Family Court judges to July 1, 2021.
Blair said Supreme Court administrators had advised the court could fund the first year of whatever pay raise plan is adopted out of its current budget, so the funding did not need to go into the budget bill.
“Whatever becomes of the judicial pay raise bill, it won’t have any fiscal implications this year,” he said.
The budget did cut funding for Justice’s Jobs and Hope drug rehabilitation and job training program by $8.8 million — equal to an amount unspent by the program this year.
Traditionally, legislators have remained in Charleston for a few additional days after the end of the regular session while House-Senate budget conferees worked out details in the budget bill.
However, House and Senate leadership have pushed over the past three years to complete work on the budget by the end of the regular session. That followed two consecutive years where revenue shortfalls resulted in budget impasses that stretched each year into June before spending plans were finally approved.