CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As the clock headed toward midnight, Gov. Jim Justice told a crowd of reporters and observers that a budget deal is at hand after discussions today with Senate President Mitch Carmichael.
“We’re not there yet,” the governor cautioned.
“Not there yet” definitely describes the House of Delegates, where lawmakers hadn’t heard of any discussions until a 10 p.m. news conference called by the governor.
House officials said they were so blindsided that their budget staff was imminently going to the printer with what they thought was a -strike-and-insert budget plan that had been worked out with the Senate when the governor made his comments alluding to a deal in the works.
As the House staff was proofing what it thought was the budget bill to be passed, Justice was talking to reporters and publicly stating a concept blending his fiscal goals with the Senate’s desire to reduce the state income tax has been under serious discussion.
The bill that the House believed it had agreed upon was voted on by the Senate at about 11:30 p.m. The House voted and passed it 63-37 just before 1 a.m.
The governor acknowledged the budget concept needs to go through a procedure that would include its drafting and then a vote by both houses.
“We’re not there yet, but we’re hopeful,” he said from a table and chair at the Governor’s Reception Room just after 10 p.m. as the midnight finish of the legislative session drew closer. “Wouldn’t it be something that at the close of business tonight we’re there.”
He said the possible deal to complete a budget that would close the state’s estimated half-billion dollar budget gap for the coming fiscal year started through discussions with Senate President Mitch Carmichael.
Carmichael, after midnight, said the Senate didn’t feel like it could rush the framework with the governor into a bill. It took no action on a tax bill passed in the House that would have been the vehicle for the framework being discussed with the governor.
As Carmichael described it, the governor would likely veto the budget bill that was being passed by the Senate and the House and then call a special session after all parties had really reached consensus.
The Senate President said he is pleased that the concept builds on a tax reform plan discussed by the Senate’s Joint Committee on Tax Reform all session. But he acknowledged regret that the House hadn’t been brought into the process earlier. He said that was a result of the fluid situation up against the midnight deadline.
Justice said if the possible deal holds then it seems like an optimal agreement to him.
“There is no remaining sticking points,” the governor said. “Just a matter of Senate passing it and going to the House. We’ve got to get to a vote.”
Justice described the agreement as what he would consider the best of all worlds, including his highways funding package, a corporate activities tax the governor had backed, a 1-percent rise in the consumer sales tax and a tiered reduction of the state income tax that Republicans in the Senate have wanted.
He said it includes a teacher payraise and funding for his Save Our State fund for infrastructure and economic development.
“It does everything we want it to do,” Justice said.
The Republican leadership in the Senate has said for weeks that the state needs to live within its means and that it would hold its budget right at the state’s revenue estimate of just north of $4 billion.
But Justice said the proposal on the table would hold cuts to a minimum.
“It expands my cuts to about $50 million, but it doesn’t hurt us. It doesn’t cut into the bone,” Justice said.
Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, in a short interview in the Senate chamber, said the discussions had developed directly between Senate President Mitch Carmichael and the governor.
“Discussions have been had at this point between the Senate president and the governor,” Ferns said. “I wasn’t present for that conversation. I don’t now if it was via text or otherwise. I know the governor’s staff has been up here quite a bit today.
“There are points of our tax reform plan they are coming on board with and there might be room for negotiation to adopt some of the governor’s positions if he’s willing to adopt some of our tax reform plan.”
Ferns said no deal is set in stone.
“I think it’s all conceptual at this point,” he said.
Justice said he stayed late at the Capitol on Friday and went home discouraged because he felt negotiations were going nowhere.
“We just didn’t move,” Justice said. “And so when I left here late last night it wasn’t good.”
He’d had his phone on silent and said it took him a long time to notice a text he had received from Carmichael.
“I texted back this morning to say I felt almost hopeless,” the governor recalled Saturday night.
“I look at Mitch as a real friend and I always have. I told him ‘I don’t think this is going anywhere.'”
The two began to exchange texts, both Carmichael and Justice said Saturday night. And by 2 o’clock enough discussions had happened to lift Justice’s mood.
By 10 p.m. he was able to say the situation was coming together.
And maybe, depending on how the House reacts over the next days, falling apart.
“Let’s be hopeful. It’s time to be happy,” the governor said as he ended his news conference, which had been planned all along for 10 p.m.
“Right now I’m one happy camper.”