West Virginia Senators Head Home Without Budget Deal
House yet to take action during special budget session
WHEELING — West Virginia Senate members recessed from a special legislative session in Charleston and went home Wednesday after the House again failed to take up any legislation pertaining to West Virginia’s 2018 budget.
Wednesday marked the third day this week — and fifth day overall — state lawmakers convened for the special session called by Gov. Jim Justice for the purposes of establishing the state budget. Each day of the special session costs taxpayers about $35,000.
The Senate, though, did not adjourn from the special session. They instead recessed until 6 p.m. today.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, will return at that time to assess the movement of the House, and will decide then whether to recall Senate members to Charleston. This will continue each day as needed, according to Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio.
If the Senate would need to make a motion, just two members are required, he said. Sen. Ed Gaunch, R-Kanawha, lives closest to the Capitol, and has agreed to come in if called.
The 34 Senate members are now not on the clock and none will be paid until they go back into session. The 100 members of the House are next scheduled to convene at 11 a.m. today.
“We’re trying to be as efficient and cost-effective as we can be,” Ferns said of the Senate. “When (the house is) ready to send us something, we’ll come back.”
The Legislature is required by the West Virginia Constitution to have a balanced budget in place by the start of the fiscal year on July 1.
Actions Thus Far During The Special Session
A total of 16 bills have been introduced during the special session, but none is specifically a 2018 budget bill.
There are House and Senate versions each of bills giving teachers a 2-percent raise, increasing motor vehicle licensing fees, setting a flat rate for use of the West Virginia Turnpike, and changing the state’s tax structure.
Others would limit the number of days members of the Legislature may receive compensation during a special session, make certain public employees retain their benefits if furloughed during a fiscal emergency, and impose taxation on medical cannabis.
The Senate passed Senate Bill 1004, an earlier version of the tax reform bill, by a vote of 32-1 on May 5. The measure was rejected without consideration by the House.
On Tuesday, the Senate passed the similar SB 1007, the Tax Reform Act of 2017, considered a major component of Justice’s plan for the 2018 budget. Democrats in the Senate, though, all voted against the Democratic governor’s proposal this time. It would raise the state sales tax to 6.95 percent, while lowering the state income tax 15 percent.
The Senate on Wednesday also advanced to third readings bills pertaining to the flat fee for the West Virginia Turnpike, and raising Division of Motor Vehicle fees.
SB 1007 was reported to the House Wednesday, where it was assigned to the finance committee. No further action was taken.
Justice Speaks Out On Senate Dems
While bills have been assigned to committees in the House, the only action on the House floor came when Justice entered the chamber Wednesday to address House members.
He apologized for not wearing a tie, but explained he had just come from a medical checkup, where everything was “really good other than they had to stab both my arms for blood.”
Justice then expressed heartbreak at the Senate Democrats having voted against his tax reform proposal on Tuesday, saying he thought he was of the party that wanted to help people.
“I chose to run as a Democrat … and I’ve carried that flag proudly,” he said. “I’ve looked out for the sick, weak and old. I’ve tried do something to create jobs for union workers, and I’ve tried to look out for teachers and do all the right things. But here’s my problem. We are doing too many things for the sake of politics. Yesterday, I saw something happen that was disbelieving to me.”
Democrats, led by Sen. Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, moved to strike Justice’s proposal and replace it with one to eliminate the taxation of Social Security benefits. Justice told House members it is unfair to evaluate a proposal and “forget where you are” — looking at what is believed to be as much as a $500 million deficit next year.
“You’ve got your leg jammed down a crocodile’s mouth, and you’re wondering whether you go to Wendy’s or Applebees tonight … ,” Justice said. “I really respect your speaker (Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha). I know we throw mud back and forth, but I respect your leadership and all of you. I want nothing but goodness here. If you tweak the bills, we’ll listen. House Democrats, I do not want you to do the crazy ploys of the Democrats yesterday. That hurt us all. That was despicable.”
Justice said he was caught off guard by the moves of the Democrats, and had not been informed by them of their plan.
Justice and Ferns often have been at odds with each other this year. But Ferns said Wednesday this is one issue in which he agrees with Justice.
“The bill voted on was not that different from what was voted on 10 days before (and approved by Democrats),” Ferns said. “He and I don’t see eye-to eye often, but this was a political ploy. For them to not even tell him they would vote against it was in bad taste.”
House Members Discuss Non-Action
Two delegates representing the Northern Panhandle told why they believe the House isn’t budging on legislation proposed during the special session.
“What’s happening is that Senate leadership has hijacked what should be budget discussions, and turned it into their attempt at tax reform on the backs of working West Virginians,” said Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio. “They are holding our budget hostage while parading around like they’re magically giving tax cuts in the middle of a $400 million budget crisis. It’s voodoo economics at its best and politics at its worst, which is why it wasn’t part of the governor’s original plan.”
Delegate Patrick McGeehan, R-Hancock, indicated the House simply doesn’t want to raise taxes.
“Practically every bill that has been introduced by the executive branch for their special budget session are proposals aimed at massively increasing taxation. And yet, there is no bill that proposes the actual budget,” he said. “If these tax bills pass, the new taxation would be detrimental to the Northern Panhandle. As the only state in the country that continues to lose population — raising taxes again and again on our residents — well, I just don’t believe that’s a prudent course for the future, or a very moral approach for the present.”