CHARLESTON, W.Va. — When the clock hits midnight, West Virginia’s state government could have its long-discussed budget. But it’s not likely to be the final version.
“We will provide a budget to the governor. Without a doubt. We’re not going to get out of here without a budget,” said Eric Nelson, the finance chairman in the House of Delegates.
There are a few scenarios that could unfold today, the final day of the 60-day regular legislative session.
The House and the Senate each have very different budget packages. One house could abandon its own plan and agree to adopt the other house’s final version. This seems unlikely because they’re far apart, with the Senate heavy on cuts and the House projecting some new revenue.
Each house could amend its own budget into the other’s, and then a conference committee of members of each could be named to work out the details. This would be the slowest solution and would probably require work beyond the one-day extended session the governor has called.
“The traditional way of doing the budget, and there’s a lot that’s happened this year that’s not been quite traditional, would be that we would put our budget into theirs and we would have a conference committee set up,” said Mike Hall, the Senate’s finance chairman.
Lastly, a whole new budget could be created today, one that is not what we’ve seen from the House or the Senate so far. This budget would acknowledge the differences between the two houses and plug the gaps with Rainy Day Fund money.
All of those scenarios project out to a veto by the governor, who has said he will reject any budget that cuts existing programs too deeply or relies too heavily on reserves.
Of course, the final scenario is that legislators could, 60 days into their session, announce that they agree with the governor and embrace his corporate activities tax, an increased tobacco tax and a soda tax. If you have a favorite metaphor for an unlikely scenario, insert that right here.
The first three scenarios wind up bringing back legislators in a couple of weeks to work on a compromise budget aimed at funding the coming fiscal year. West Virginia faces a budget shortfall of roughly a half-billion dollars.
The governor has already called a news conference for 10 p.m. today to address the budget situation.
“They’ve got two pathways and both of them are spinning off into crazy man’s land, in my opinion,” Justice said earlier this week.
Nelson, the House finance chairman, is among those hoping Sunday won’t be necessary to complete the budget work.
“I would hope not,” Nelson, R-Kanawha, said Friday night. “But you know, we do have an extra day if we need that. But the goal is to get this daggone thing done. I don’t want to be here on Sunday.
“We’ve not had, from the House side interaction, with the governor and his staff for the past couple of days. But supposedly the people in the Senate have. So it’s an interesting bag that we’re dealing with right now.”
The House’s $4.24 billion version would include a $137 million “broadening the base” tax proposal that includes a new tax on cellphones and landlines to raise millions in new revenue.
That version cuts higher education and healthcare, but not as deeply as the Senate’s does. It does establish a single line item for higher education institutions and delegates cuts to the Higher Education Policy Commission. It also does away with the Department of Education and the Arts but spins off many of its programs to other departments.
The revenue component of the House’s budget, Senate Bill 484, was passed by that body on Tuesday evening. The Senate has not yet accepted the message, essentially back-pocketing the proposal. Today the Senate could table it or amend it and send it back.
“Well, I guess we’re waiting to see what the Senate does,” Nelson said. “We had sent 484 as well as our budget, two critical points. And to the extent that they act on 484, which was the broaden-and-lower measure, then we’ll see what happens with the budget, whether they amend their budget in, whether there’s something else amended in and then comes back.
“Our staffs are working on various agency line items right now, where we differ, where we need to come together. There was a big difference between the two budgets.”
The Senate’s $4.102 billion budget proposal makes good on the GOP leadership’s promise to keep spending in line with revenue estimates for the coming fiscal year. The Senate budget makes significant cuts to higher education and healthcare.
The Senate’s proposal includes $47.7 million in cuts to the Department of Health and Human Resources and would sacrifice significant matching federal Medicaid funds. Advocates for the disabled rallied last week at the Capitol, and Justice had a state-of-emergency lantern atop the Capitol lit weeks ago to signify what he views as an emerging healthcare crisis.
The Senate passed its budget 20-14 earlier this week, losing not only Democrats but also Republicans Jeff Mullins (R-Raleigh) and Mike Maroney (R-Marshall). It’s not clear a final vote on that version would clear the Senate tonight, much less get approval in the House.
“The House has expressed in no uncertain terms, very publicly on the floor, many of them, that there are certain cuts in the Senate budget that they will not accept,” said Hall, the Senate Finance chairman.
That’s why he believes a new budget will roll out today, originating in the House .
“I think that what’s going to happen here is that a budget bill will be written by the House of Delegates that will be worked out in concert with the leaders of the Senate and we will just attempt to just accept their budget,” said Hall, R-Putnam.
“It’ll take a little while to write it, that’s part of the trouble. And that will just be agreed to as a budget and we won’t have a conference committee.”
Hall added, “They will pass their bill over to us and once it arrives here, all we have to do is agree with their bill, we agree with their message. Take it up for immediate consideration, have it read a first time and whatever procedure you’ve got to do and that would be the final budget.”
That would require somehow filling the revenue gap between the bare-bones Senate version and the more-funded House version. Hall doubts the Senate will agree to fill the gap with increased taxes. That’s where the Rainy Day Fund would come into play.
“If there’s a revenue measure agreed to, which I’m somewhat of doubt that it will be because the House and Senate are pretty far apart, the only thing that you could do that would raise spending up to the level of what the House is fund that with revenue shortfall reserve fund,” Hall said.
If that happens, legislators wouldn’t need to return for an extended session on Sunday.
“Don’t have to because we’re extended to do the budget. Whenever that budget is done we can walk out of here,” Hall said. “Whenever that bill passes if it’s at 5 o’clock, 6 o’clock, 7 o’clock, 10 o’clock, whenever, we can end the session right then. I’ve actually advocated that we don’t stay until midnight.”
That still isn’t a formula to please the governor, who has said he doesn’t want to further diminish the Rainy Day Fund.
Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso foresees being sent home and then being called back to Charleston in a couple of weeks.
“We’re not gonna be close. We’re gonna be miles apart. The House budget is no way gonna look like the Senate budget. We’re not gonna concur, I’m sure. The House is not gonna concur with us,” Prezioso, D-Marion, said Friday night.
“The best thing to do is, according to the Constitution call us in for one day, adjourn, get out of here, wait a couple of weeks, resolve this thing with maybe a few people who know what the budget needs to look like and then go back to our respective caucuses and see if we can sell it. I think that’s the end game.”
Even if a budget gap is filled by using the Rainy Day Fund, Prezioso sees a veto ahead.
“We may get a budget. It’s going to be a fantasy budget. It’s not something anybody can live with. It’s just meeting the letter of the law,” Prezioso said. “Obviously he governor is going to veto it and then we’ll have to get serious.”
At that point, leaders of the House and the Senate, leaders of both parties and the governor’s office would need to focus on a compromise. Prezioso does believe that’s possible.
“We’re going to have to agree to some cuts, there’s no question. Not to the magnitude of the Senate budget. But we’re going to have to concur with the House on some of the revenue enhancements,” he said.
“It’s got to be a mutual agreement, somewhere met in the middle that we can live with. We’ve got to do something with the roads too. I know all the roads bill are dead in the House. The governor’s going to have to bring those back in a very narrow-called special session so we can get those things done. We’ve to kickstart this economy and the only way to get this done is to bring people back to work.”
But those discussions will have to wait. Start another clock for when they might happen.
“We’ve got to get out of here. It’s been a very stressful session,” Prezioso said.
“I just think when we get into a special session with just the budget and some road bills that we’ll narrowly focus on those and those will be the issues.”