CHARLESTON, W.Va. — With one day to go before the end of the regular legislative session, lawmakers have passed a $4.6 billion general revenue budget.
The Senate voted to concur on a budget plan that was passed the prior day by the House of Delegates. The bill passed 19 to 14 with one senator, Donna Boley, absent. Republicans voted for the bill, and Democrats voted against it.
Concur and Completed – HB2020 – Budget Bill, making appropriations of public money out of the treasury in accordance with section fifty-one, article six of the Constitution https://t.co/5SOnKPhKOm
— WV Senate (@wvsenate) March 8, 2019
Senate leaders have been working behind the scenes with House leaders and the Governor’s Office to reach agreement on the budget.
Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, asked why it was done that way, rather than establishing a conference committee to work out differences.
“The budget went back and forth. Once it came back over last time, it seemed that very few had eyes on the budget,” Prezioso said. “Would you agree with me that the conferee process has more transparency in putting the budget together?”
Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, responded that the committee process earlier in the session helped make priorities clear.
“It’s a matter of perspective,” he said. “We’re giving our input (in committee) on what the budget is going to be.”
Blair said the big benefit of concurring with the House changes to the budget was speed.
“It gets us across the finish line before Day 60,” Blair said.
Wrapping up the budget was possible in part because lawmakers put off an area of big disagreement.
The Republican majority in the Senate has maintained it already voted for a teacher pay raise, in the form of an omnibus education bill that included other provisions like charter schools and education savings accounts, which set aside taxpayer dollars for students moving from public education to private schooling.
Governor Justice has been saying for months the teacher pay raise should be considered by itself. The House of Delegates permanently tabled a bill that included the array of education policies. Delegates then voted in favor of the standalone pay raise bill.
The state budget establishes a $67 million line item for educators’ pay raises but doesn’t yet allocate the money.
The allocation would come after a special session called by Gov. Jim Justice to focus on a broad range of education issues. That could be resolved later this summer.
The funds are set aside, but the pay raise would still require the passage of a separate bill to make the money available.
“Right now it’s in the budget, but we don’t get the authorization of the spending of it,” said Senator John Unger, D-Berkeley, casting the statement as a question.
The governor’s announced plan calls for the Legislature to gavel in for the special session right away but then recess just as quickly. Lawmakers would then go into their communities to meet with teachers, students parents and more — ideally returning with ideas to improve West Virginia’s school system.
“We’ll also see opportunity for the pay raise action to be completed,” Blair said.
The budget bill reflects other priorities such as tax reductions for Social Security income, severance tax cuts for steam coal and limestone and a stripper well tax cut.
There’s additional spending too. Besides the pay raise, that includes $10 million for tuition for students pursuing technical degrees, $5 million spread across community and technical colleges and $10 million for four-year colleges.
“Jim’s Dream,” the governor’s proposal that combines drug addiction prevention with workforce training, is funded at $20 million in general revenue plus another possible $5 million from surplus.
Prezioso disagreed with the process but offered praise for Blair in the end.
“I applaud you for getting it done in 60 days,” he said.
The budget bill now goes to the governor.