Cigarette tax goes up in smoke as budget battle intensifies

As the regular session of the West Virginia Legislature rolls to a close—we have just two week to go—it has become apparent that there is no consensus under the Capitol dome over how to resolve a serious budget problem.

The hole in the proposed spending plan for the fiscal year beginning July 1st could be as much as $180 million, and options for finding that money are getting smaller by the day.

First Governor Tomblin turned in his spending plan, patching the budget holes by spending cuts, reprioritizing of some state spending and taking $83 million out of the state’s Rainy Day emergency fund.

That hit a snag when lawmakers balked at several of the bills Tomblin needed passed to shift money within the state budget.

Senate President Jeff Kessler took the lead yesterday morning when he said on Talkline that he wanted to increase the cigarette tax from the current 55 cents a pack to $1.55 to raise $90 million toward filling the budget hole.

But when that plan was brought up to the House of Delegates Democratic caucus, it was soundly rejected.  That meeting was behind closed doors, but sources say only a quarter of the delegates were willing to support a higher tobacco tax.

House Speaker Tim Miley confirmed afterward that election year politics have the Democrats worried about higher taxes.

“There is always some fear by all elected officials wondering whether constituents back home will support them if they vote in favor of a tax increase,” Miley said.

Miley did, however, come back with a counter proposal similar to the Governor’s plan for dedicating to the budget deficit a small portion of the lottery proceeds that are directed by law to the horse and dog breeders and cities and counties.

Still, without a tax increase, it means writing a big check out of the Rainy Day fund, perhaps taking as much as 25 percent out of the $920 million dollar account.

Meanwhile, there has been some grumbling about Tomblin’s pay raise plan for teachers, service workers and state employees, with some wondering how the Governor can justify increasing the state’s payroll, while having to dip into savings to balance the budget.

Virtually lost in the discussion are the state’s roads.  They’re crumbling, and the bad winter has caught the attention of lawmakers who are hearing from their constituents about potholes.

But nobody here is talking seriously about raising taxes or dedicating significantly more money to highways.

And keep in mind that these disagreements about how to balance the budget are all among the Democrats since they are the majority party in both the House and Senate and hold the Governorship.

Yes, lawmakers will come up with a balanced budget—by law they must—and even though there are just a couple weeks left in the regular session, this checkbook balancing act has a long way to go.

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