CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia’s state budget does not appear to be destined for a particular kind of platter.
The state Senate unanimously passed a budget bill on Thursday, Day 58 of the annual 60-day session.
The House took up the bill late Thursday afternoon and then considered a variety of amendments through the late evening. Shortly before 11 p.m., the House passed its own version of the budget bill, 98-0.
Now the two budget bills will need to be reconciled.
Passage of the $4,381,808,884 budget bill is significantly ahead of recent years.
Last year, the Legislature passed a budget with millions in cuts to higher education and Medicaid a little more than an hour after midnight on the final night.
Gov. Jim Justice thought so poorly of it, he vetoed it in a ceremony with a platter and some bovine excrement.
Negotiations then took weeks and included a lengthy special session to come up with a new budget prior to the next fiscal year.
The prior year, during the Tomblin administration, state leaders needed until the middle of June to come up with a budget everybody could agree on.
Even during normal years, the Legislature has traditionally taken a week after the regular session to focus on the budget.
Governor Justice announced earlier this week that he would exercise his constitutional prerogative to allow one additional day beyond the regular session if the Legislature needs it.
It doesn’t seem like it’s going to require that.
The Senate’s version of the budget passed unanimously Thursday afternoon.
“It’s a new day in West Virginia,” said Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley. “We had difficult times this year but we never lost focus on the work we were doing in the Finance Committee.
Senate Finance and House Finance made a special effort to make sure bills with fiscal implications were moved through earlier in the session, Blair said.
Another key factor is the biggest fight has already been fought.
That was the ongoing battle over pay raises for teachers and other public employees. It resulted in classrooms across West Virginia being closed for nine days.
And the Justice administration and lawmakers committed to spending millions to freeze the Public Employees Insurance Agency for the coming fiscal year.
“What we have passed with the 5 percent to school personnel and across-the-board on state employees is $111 million,” said House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha.
“So, on top of that you add the $29 million to PEIA so that puts us up to $140 million. And the other expense item that must be increased is our annual share of retirement payments that’s tied to compensation levels. That’s another $14 million that no one’s talked about.”
So, the budget includes roughly $150 million in total new compensation.
To do so, some spending items had to go.
Governor Justice proposed raising the state revenue estimate by $58 million, but lawmakers elected not to immediately count on that and, instead, to see if it really comes through.
Instead, there will be some reductions of spending that had been intended earlier, plus some transfers.
A $46 million spending increase Justice had advocated for the Division of Commerce and the Department of Tourism is on hold.
Another $18 million the state had planned to perform deferred maintenance on public properties will remain deferred.
A community and technical college bill that would have subsidized tuition for some students will go on the shelf. That bill, championed by Carmichael, amounted to $7 million.
There will be a $14 million transfer of Lottery revenue.
A $12 million annual transfer from the General Fund to the Road Fund will go un-transferred.
And $13.5 million that would have gone toward paying down what remains of West Virginia’s workers compensation fund debt will be held back.
There was also talk of dedicating money that would otherwise have gone toward Medicaid funding. That drew some alarm but remained unclear.
Those who piece together the state budget do shift around Medicaid money on a fairly routine basis. Justice, for his part, said not to worry.
“We will not let our people on Medicaid suffer in any way,” he said.
Nelson described it on the House floor on Thursday as a solid budget.
“I do urge passage,” he said. “This is a balanced budget taking into account all our pay raises and does not include any cuts below FY18.”