CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia lawmakers voted to adjourn until June 5 after two votes indicating just how far apart they still are on how to bridge the budget gap for the coming fiscal year.
Then Gov. Jim Justice announced that on Thursday he will be meeting individually with Senate President Mitch Carmichael, Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, House Speaker Tim Armstead and House Minority Leader Tim Miley.
“Tomorrow, Governor Justice will meet with the Senate President, the Senate Minority Leader, the Speaker of the House, and the House Minority Leader in four separate rooms and travel from room to room as the mediator-in-chief. Justice wants to better understand the positions of each side,” stated the release from the Justice administration.
“I want to get this budget deal done, and a mediation session will hopefully help us get there,” the governor stated. “We are all West Virginians and we all want a path forward that will help our people. Rarely has West Virginia had this opportunity in the midst of a terrible crisis; we don’t want to lose this moment.”
Carmichael said rather than set up a formal conference committee to resolve differences, Justice expressed desire to be directly involved.
“He’s very adamant; he wants to get involved in this process,” said Carmichael, R-Jackson.
“He felt it was better, as the House did also, rather than take action on the budget tonight to allow him to get involved in the process and see if he can reach an agreement with all sides — the Senate Rs, the Senate Ds, the House Rs and the House Ds.”
House Speaker Tim Armstead said Wednesday evening’s votes, which stood in sharp contrast, demonstrated the need for further negotiations.
“The fact that we have exchanged different pieces of legislation while we’ve been in session has allowed us to clarify where people stand,” said Armstead, R-Kanawha.
“That I believe is a good time for us to take a step back and get everybody — the leadership, both Republican and Democrat and both the House and the Senate, in the room with the governor and let’s talk about where we are and where we go forward.”
Miley, the House minority leader, agreed the adjournment was a wise decision and said he was ready to work toward a budget solution.
“I look forward to participating in productive negotiations over the next couple of weeks that I hope will help build some consensus between the Legislature and the Governor on how to move forward to address this budget crisis,” Miley stated in a release distributed by the House.
“This is a smart move by the Legislature that will save taxpayer money.”
Earlier Wednesday evening, the Senate voted — again — to pass its plan to raise the state sales tax while reducing the personal income tax.
About an hour later, the House of Delegates voted 85-0 to refuse to concur.
“This proposal from the Senate should be soundly rejected. I move that we refuse to concur,” said House Majority Leader Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, who particularly objected to the increase of the sales tax to 7.25 percent.
Earlier in the evening, Senator Robert Karnes, who has been a driving force behind the income tax change proposal, predicted the House would come on board.
“I still believe more and more members of the House are either adopting our approach or recognizing there are probably few alternatives,” said Karnes, R-Upshur.
The Senate’s 18-13 vote on the tax bill included all Republicans except for Senator Randy Smith voting in favor and all Democrats against. After the Senate’s evening floor session, Smith said he did not want to discuss his vote. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
Senator Patricia Rucker, who was present earlier, was counted as absent for the tax vote. Rucker was an early sponsor of the bill but withdrew her sponsorship during the regular session. Rucker was not at her desk when the Senate returned later Wednesday evening.
At that point, the Senate’s vote seemed certain to set up conference committee situation with the House of Delegates, which had twice in the special session voted down versions of the Senate plan. The House last Friday passed its own plan to keep the sales tax as-is and foregoing the general income tax reduction. And now the House had voted unanimously to refuse to concur.
“We’re going into conference. There’s no doubt about it,” Senate Minority Leader Prezioso, D-Marion, said earlier this afternoon, prior to the vote to adjourn until June 5.
Senator Charles Trump, R-Morgan, agreed with that assessment and said the Senate’s Republican leadership should take the opportunity to make its best argument in favor of the bill.
“I assume we’re heading toward a conference committee with the House of Delegates. Let’s make our case,” Trump said.
The Senate’s bill is estimated to result in $147 million in new revenue for fiscal 2018, but — not taking into account any potential economic growth — then result in deficits of $56 million, $122 million, $137 million and $178 million over the coming years.
Republicans who back the bill say they believe there will be economic growth resulting from the income tax reductions.
Democrats in the Senate said that’s a gamble and the income tax changes should be studied later in a special session with the proper focus now on resolving the budget gap before the new fiscal year starting July 1.
The Democrats objected to how the tax structure in that chamber’s bill would affect the lower and middle class, expressed concern about the budget holes predicted in future years and said it would be a foregone conclusion that the House would knock the Senate’s bill down again.
They actually made a motion to amend the House’s bill — which raises about $100 million mostly by imposing new taxes on economic sectors such as telecommunications and communications — into the Senate’s version. Their amendment proposed a sales tax increase to 6.5 percent.
That amendment was defeated.