–For all the grief politicians get, the Legislature and the Governor deserve credit for finishing work on the state budget for next fiscal year within the 60 days of the regular session. Normally, the Governor has to extend the session by a few extra days and last year the debate dragged into June before there was finally agreement. According to the approved budget document the state will collect in taxes and spend $4.38 billion next fiscal year, compared with $4.23 billion this fiscal year.
–The House and Senate unanimously agreed to support the Judicial Budget Oversight Amendment. Now voters will decide whether to support or oppose a proposed amendment to the state constitution giving the Legislature oversight of the Judiciary’s budget, which is close to $140 million annually. The amendment was driven by outrage over controversial spending by the State Supreme Court on lavish office furnishings and renovations.
–Governor Jim Justice faces a vexing decision on the bill that dismantles the Department of Education and the Arts. Republicans pushed the bill through, arguing that the agency is unnecessary and that responsibilities and programs within the department can be shifted to other agencies. On one hand, Justice, who switched to the Republican Party last year, would be inclined to follow the wishes of his party, but on the other hand, when Justice was elected as a Democrat he picked Gayle Manchin, wife of U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, to run the agency.
–It will also be interesting to see what Justice does with a bill passed by the Legislature on the final day that requires volunteers working in official capacities in the government to submit financial disclosure information to the state Ethics Commission. The bill is being referred to as the “Bray Cary Bill.” Cary has emerged as a key unpaid adviser to the Governor. Lawmakers raised concerns about a potential conflict of interest, since Cary is a board member of EQT Corporation. However, Cary has been voluntarily submitting financial disclosure information to the Ethics Commission.
–Governor Justice had to abandon several of his benchmark proposals during the session. They include a scholarship program for community and technical college students, and significant increases in funding for Commerce and Tourism. Justice had to forgo those initiatives to fund the five percent pay raises for school teachers, school service employees, state police and public employees.
–Saturday marked the end of the regular session tenures of two long-serving members of the House of Delegates. Speaker Tim Armstead (R-Kanawha) previously announced he is not running for re-election. He is considering a bid for the State Supreme Court in 2020. Armstead has served in the House since 1999, and in 2014 he became the first Republican Speaker of the House in 84 years after the GOP won the majority. Delegate John Overington (R-Berkeley) is also not seeking re-election. Overington has been in office 34 years, the longest continuous service of any Delegate.
–Even before the regular session ended, it appeared a special session is on the horizon. Notably, the announcement came not from Justice, but rather from the National Basketball Association. The NBA issued a news release thanking Justice for his commitment to a special session to work out issues with the Sports Betting Bill. The Legislature approved the bill allowing sports wagering at the state’s five casinos and on line, pending a favorable ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in a New Jersey sport betting case. Justice reportedly has some heartburn over how the bill is currently written. Professional sports organizations lobbied the Legislature unsuccessfully to receive a percentage of the money wagered.