CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A little West Virginia budget drama goes a long way.
Two years ago, Gov. Jim Justice vetoed the budget passed by the Legislature with symbolic displeasure. It was on a platter with bovine byproduct.
A few months later, after an extended session, Justice was still angry and let the budget bill go into law without his signature.
Last year, there was some angst over Justice’s insistence there was an additional $57 million in revenue that could have been put toward state employee pay raises. But he signed the budget anyway.
This week, Justice signed the budget bill, sent out a press release and relied on Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy to handle a press conference to detail the highlights.
“Remarkable. Miraculous,” Hardy said to describe the difference.
“Look at two years ago: We all were sitting here on June the 18th quarreling back and forth about whether we could get together on a budget.”
— Governor Jim Justice (@WVGovernor) March 15, 2019
The Legislature passed a budget bill last Friday, a day ahead of the conclusion of the regular 60-day session. It amounts to $4.6 billion in general revenue spending.
“This budget provides significant investments in our state’s education system, provides a 5-percent average pay raise to our state employees, and funds innovative programs to help put our citizens back to work,” House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, stated after the budget’s legislative passage.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, also praised the budget priorities and process.
“This is a responsible spending plan that controls spending, provides pay raises to state employees, prioritizes crucial investments in education and provides much-needed tax relief to our seniors and struggling coal industry,” Carmichael stated last week.
The budget bill reflects tax reductions for Social Security income, severance tax cuts for steam coal and limestone and a stripper well tax cut.
“A lot of the tax cuts that were passed this year don’t have an effect immediately. They have an effect over time,” Hardy said.
There’s additional spending too.
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.
The budget bill provides a pay raise for most state employees, plus an additional $105 million to shore up the Public Employees Insurance Agency.
It also provides funding for “Jim’s Dream,” the governor’s proposal for drug addiction treatment and workforce training.
Hardy said agreement was possible because the administration got an early jump on conversations with legislative leaders.
“The Legislature clearly agreed with the governor’s plan and passed the budget bill,” Hardy said.
Wrapping up the budget was also possible in part because lawmakers put off an area of big disagreement.
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 Governor 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.
“Funds are appropriated as the governor recommended for a future pay raise. Of course there still has to be another session of the legislature before they’re finalized,” Hardy said.
Hardy said the governor got a detailed summary of the budget before signing it but that Justice felt it was better to have the revenue team publicly discuss it.
“We talked with the governor for hours about this yesterday. In general, I think the governor thought we would do a better job going into a deep dive. So he suggested we have a press conference today.”