Lawmakers Begin 60-Day Annual Session

CHARLESTON (AP) – The West Virginia Legislature began its session Wednesday without much fanfare and now will spend the next two months grappling with budget issues and trying to find ways to improve the state’s economy.

House Speaker Tim Miley and Senate President Jeffrey Kessler banged gavels at noon and after a taking care of a few procedural items, soon went into recess to wait for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s 7 p.m. State of the State address.

With West Virginia’s economy recovering at a slower pace than the rest of the county, lawmakers will focus most of their attention on jobs and business issues.

“It’s still about jobs, jobs, jobs and how do we do that and how do we help small businesses,” said House Majority Leader Harry Keith White, D-Mingo.

Lawmakers are also expected to approve cuts to the current budget and even more to next year’s spending plan as the state faces an estimated $60 million deficit.

The state will likely dip into its $918 million in reserves, possibly as much as $100 million, in order to keep agency and program cuts from being too severe, said White.

“That’s what it’s there for, to try to help in times like this,” he said, adding that at the equivalent of 20 percent of the state’s general revenue, it is one of the strongest rainy day funds in the country.

One of Senate President Jeffrey Kessler’s priorities is to create a trust fund using tax money from the state’s growing natural gas industry. His hope would be to each year set aside 25 percent of any taxes after $100 million has been collected from the industry.

The money would eventually be used to help state needs like education or for tax relief.

“West Virginia has had a long and storied history of being a very heavy extraction state, yet we’re the poorest state in the union in many respects,” said Kessler, D-Marshall. “I don’t want to see that happen again since we have another bite at the apple with gas. Had we put a couple cents (aside) on every ton of coal that came out of this ground we’d be the richest state in the union, but we didn’t.”