West Virginia Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns: Budget Woes Will Give Way to Reform

Photo by Perry Bennett, W.Va. Legislature West Virginia Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, looks on during an interim committee meeting in Charleston in October.

WHEELING — West Virginia Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns said unlike the last two years, budget concerns shouldn’t consume the time and energy of state lawmakers when they return to Charleston next month — but they still could have a taxing time reforming the state’s tax code.

The West Virginia Legislature begins its regular session on Jan. 10.

Ferns said the state budget “looks like it is in better condition this year,” and he believes there will be more time for lawmakers to consider tax reform legislation. State officials had set the projected budget deficit for West Virginia as high as $500 million for 2017-18.

“The numbers are still coming in… but it looks like the projected budget shortfall (for 2018-19) is more manageable than expected,” Ferns said. “It won’t consume as much of our time, and it will make life easier.”

Tax reform is a major topic, and now will likely move to the top of the agenda, according to Ferns.

“The Legislature has made a serious attempt the last three years toward modernizing the tax code, but we couldn’t get all three branches — the Senate, House and the governor’s office — on the same page at the same time,” he said.

“It takes all three. This year, we will still be attempting tax reform and finding something we all three can agree upon.”

In addition to tax reform, House and Senate leadership will focus on legal, regulatory and education reforms in 2018.

One idea being proposed is making community and technical colleges tuition-free in West Virginia, according to Ferns.

“We have heard from businesses interested in West Virginia that we need a better-trained and educated workforce,” he said. “Tennessee has had success with such a program, and that’s something that will be evaluated and considered.”

It is likely a bill will be introduced pertaining to property owners’ gas rights and “co-tenancy,” a situation where more than one person — perhaps dozens of heirs — own the same land. At present, if one owner objects to a land lease it can’t be implemented.

Ferns said lawmakers may look to change the law so that a sale or lease agreement can be arranged if a supermajority of property owners agree.

Last year, the Legislature passed a bill to eliminate the West Virginia Greyhound Breeding Development Fund, but this was vetoed by Gov. Jim Justice. Ferns said a bill likely will be introduced this year to separate the fund from the administration of the state so the money stays with the breeders.