Future Fund Proposal Forwarded

WHEELING – On the final day of the regular session, the West Virginia Legislature voted to raise the state minimum wage over the next two years, set aside severance tax revenue for future projects and paved the way for a possible second interchange at The Highlands.

In a 91-5 vote, House of Delegates members passed an altered version of Senate President Jeff Kessler’s West Virginia Future Fund proposal, but the delegates rejected a related measure that would have allowed voters to solidify spending limitations on the fund in the form of a constitutional amendment. With time running short before adjournment at midnight Saturday, the Senate agreed to accept the changes and forward the bill to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s desk for his signature.

Kessler, D-Marshall, was enthusiastic despite the defeat of the constitutional amendment, declaring, “We did it!” via social media shortly following the vote.

After failed attempts to establish a Future Fund in three previous years, Kessler managed this year to navigate his plan to set aside 25 percent of annual natural gas severance tax revenue received above a certain benchmark through the Legislature virtually untouched until the session’s final week. But the House changed the bill dramatically, instead providing for 3 percent of severance tax revenue from multiple sources – including coal – to be deposited in the fund, and preventing deposits into the fund during years in which a budget shortfall exists or the balance of the state’s Rainy Day Fund is less than 13 percent of the general fund budget.

The push to reshape the bill continued Saturday but with less success, as House members struck down several additional amendments to the bill, including one from Delegate Michael Folk, R-Berkeley, who gave an impassioned plea to forbid paying into the Future Fund until nine different employee pension plans are at least 80-percent funded.

“It’s the right thing to do because we need to fund our future liabilities before we create a Future Fund. … You all talk about the future, but you’re not funding the future. … I’m sick and tired of people talking about balanced budgets when they’re not balanced,” Folk said.

Proposed amendments that would have required a portion of severance tax proceeds to go into a special fund to reduce the state’s business inventory tax and required a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to spend any money from the fund also failed.

Some in the Senate struggled to sort through the various amendments, but after some debate voted 32-2 to accept the House version.

The minimum wage bill was one of many measures approved at the last minute. If Tomblin signs the measure, the minimum hourly wage will increase to $8 on July 1, 2015 and to $8.75 on July 1, 2016. The Senate had passed a more gradual increase to $8.75-per-hour over three years, but the House refused to back down and the Senate ultimately voted 20-14 to accept the two-year plan.

In other business, House members unanimously passed a bill allowing Ohio County to use future sales tax revenue at The Highlands to build a second Interstate 70 interchange at the retail development. The measure expands the 300-acre tax increment financing district at The Highlands to 500 acres by adding 200 currently undeveloped acres.

A portion of sales tax revenue from within the TIF district stays in Ohio County, and county commissioners hope to sell bonds backed by revenue from future development on that acreage in order to build a second I-70 interchange at the retail development, estimated to cost about $40 million. County officials believe a second interchange will alleviate traffic congestion and help the development continue to grow.