CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia’s Legislature has gaveled in for the regular 60-day session — likely without overriding budget problems like the past couple of years but with a laundry list of goals and issues to sort out.
Lawmakers were still anticipating Gov. Jim Justice’s priorities, which he was to spell out at the State of the State address tonight.
For legislators, there’s less pressure on the budget — but emerging desires for increased spending, along with the desire by Republicans to roll back the personal property taxes paid by business.
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The most recent update from the state Department of Revenue showed revenue is nearly $106 million ahead of where the state was last year.
Lawmakers learned of another bit of fortune earlier this week when the director of the state Consolidated Public Retirement Board announced that investment payoffs will reduce the amount the state has to pay into pension plans for the coming year by $32,803,000.
But there are also new ideas for how that money might be used.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, has been advocating to make community and technical college free to everyone in West Virginia. He has estimated a $10 million cost.
Justice has advocated for increased funding for the Department of Commerce as well as for the Division of Tourism.
Addressing lawmakers this past fall, Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher had said an additional $35 million would help his agency make investments to help lure more business to the state. Justice told the Tourism Commission last month that he wants to bump the Tourism budget to $20 million, tripling it.
Democrats, in a press conference Tuesday, also described investment in Tourism as a priority. “Tourism has been underfunded for years,” Delegate Bill Hartman, D-Randolph, stated.
He added, “We also need to increase funding for economic development to help the Development Office provide the assets needed to aggressively pursue businesses and effectively compete with other states for them.”
Pay increases for corrections officers seem to have bipartisan support. Governor Justice declared a state of emergency last month over the corrections system, which experiences significant turnover and overtime. The proposal is a step raise system meant to boost average starting pay to $30,000 a year.
That raises the question of whether pay raises would be proposed for other public employees. Last year, Justice advocated for teacher pay raises averaging 2 percent. Lawmakers did not wind up passing the raises, with the Republican majority citing the tight budget.
Meanwhile, Republican leaders have been advocating a rollback of inventory tax for businesses. They say the tax is a barrier to keeping existing businesses and luring new ones because companies pay the tax on their property whether they’re making money or not.
The proposal calls for trimming the tax by about $20 million a year over a seven-year period. The tax brings in about $140 million a year.
Democrats warned that without a guaranteed revenue stream to replace the income, local governments and public schools across the state will lose millions of dollars in funding.
“While this is an unpopular tax, it is unfortunately not a revenue stream that the State of West Virginia can afford to remove at this time,” stated Delegate Brent Boggs, D-Braxton. “The reality is that the state has had one good budget month, and this business property tax is one of the more stable sources of revenue for our state.
A significant policy issue that could have an effect on the state’s economy is natural gas legislation. Justice has been meeting with stakeholders in the natural gas industry and those representing land and royalties interests over the past couple of weeks.
The Legislature would unbundle the bills having to do with natural gas policy this year, so each would fly or die on its own merits. Observers say most likely to pass this year is a co-tenancy policy, which would allow a percentage — rather than 100 percent — of mineral rights holders to approve a large drilling project.
As these budget issues are being negotiated, not only has some pressure come off with improving revenue, but there also have been improvements in the relationships between legislative leadership and the governor.
Justice and House Speaker Tim Armstead, particularly, found themselves at odds over their visions of state spending last year. Justice switched parties this past summer from Democrat to Republican.
Armstead, speaking today on MetroNews “Talkline” said the relationship seemed to improve as the two worked together during a special session this past fall.
“We were able to sit down in his office and talk with him about legislation. That doesn’t mean we’re going to agree on everything. That’s the purpose of two branches of government,” Armstead said.
“But I think it’s much better going into this session, and I think we have more coordination and discussions about the agenda that I hope will result in a lot smoother session.”