CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall said in a floor speech today that as the legislative session reaches its midway point, his committee has made great progress toward a budget but the overall body still needs to agree on a strategy.
“I don’t think any one group yet has coalesced around an answer to the revenue question,” said Hall, R-Putnam.
Hall’s remarks were in response to questioning on the Senate floor. Democrats in both houses have taken to asking about the status of the budget on a daily basis.
Near the end of today’s Senate floor session, Senator Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, rose and asked where the Legislature stands on dealing with the anticipated half-billion dollar budget gap for the coming fiscal year.
“I was hoping that when I conclude my remarks that we can hear – Day 30 is tomorrow – whether there will be any revenue enhancements part of the budget, which I know hard work has been done on since day one,” Woelfel said.
“I would really like an update since I’m not on finance committee to know if there will be budget cutting or if any revenue enhancements in the budget.”
Hall then rose and said his committee has been hard at work, but that Governor Jim Justice’s proposed budget had been of little help because it suggests spending more than the state has been taking in the past few years.
And, Hall said, there are different approaches within the Legislature. While his Finance Committee takes a traditional path, the Senate’s Select Committee on Tax Reform continues to examine the possibility of doing away with the state’s income tax and establishing a broad-based consumer sales tax.
“I would like to have an answer to this question as you would,” Hall said. “I would like to know what this body would like to do.”
A week ago, on an appearance today on “Talkline” with Hoppy Kercheval, Hall said he was aiming to have a budget framework to be presented to the Senate by the 30th day of the session, which is Thursday.
“My whiteboard is ready,” Hall told Kercheval, referring to Governor Justice’s penchant for using a dry erase board to show what he wants to do with the budget.
In his comments today, he said his committee has had its collective nose to the grindstone and will be wrapping up budget meetings with agencies in the executive branch today.
“We’re close to an agreement,” Hall said. “Any day we finally agree on the numbers, one day later we can have a budget bill on your desk.”
But Hall was no longer promising to make a budget strategy presentation in the near future.
“I will say this, we’re farther ahead than we’ve ever been once those questions are settled,” Hall said. “What I said from the very beginning is we would be very close or right on to what our expenditures should be. I’ve got a document upstairs pretty close to where we are on that.
“I don’t know about the future about how we’re going to fill the gap but obviously we are going to have to and I hope we do within the 60 days.”
Last year, the Legislature had to go into an extended budget session after the regular session to resolve the fiscal gap anticipated then.
Hall today said he thinks adjourning the regular session and then calling a special session weeks later was likely unconstitutional.
“We as a Legislature have 60 days or it can be extended, but the constitution says the governor can extend the session,” Hall said. “I contend we shouldn’t leave town until it’s done. I think we violated the constitution last year.”
Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, a member of the finance committee and former chairman of it, agreed during an interview after the floor session that hard work has been done already but the path forward isn’t clear yet to him either.
“The leadership continues to tell us we’re going to have a plan. We’re waiting to see it. We have yet to see it,” said Prezioso, D-Marion.
Prezioso continued, “I would assume that within this week or next week that they’re going to come out with a plan. It’s yet to be seen what they want to do. We all realize that we do have a funding gap. There’s no secret how to fix it. You’ve either got to raise taxes or cut the programs.”
“Senator Hall has done a really good job in letting all the agencies vet. He’s given members of the committee an opportunity to look at these budget. And I think he pretty well sees that we’re pretty well cut to the bone. It’s just a matter of what revenue enhancements we want to get together and a combination of some cuts that won’t amount to that much.”
Prezioso concluded, “Within the next week or so they obviously need to present a plan and negotiations will begin.”