CHARLESTON, W.Va. — On his ninth and final visit to a group of legislators sequestered in a Capitol conference room Thursday evening, Gov. Jim Justice was not yet ready to declare victory over the proposed $4.35 billion state budget.
“We’re trying really hard. Everybody’s working on it, I’m hopeful we’re going to get there, but that’s all I can tell you about it,” Justice said in brief comments while he walked from a late-day discussion with House Democrats and back into a gathering of Senate Republicans.
The governor, who had spent the day walking from room to room to negotiate with lawmakers, said the talks aimed at resolving a budget gap of about $200 million would need to continue at 9:30 a.m. Friday.
The talks on Thursday, which started the day after the Legislature adjourned its special session until June 5, began at 10 a.m. and lasted until around 7 p.m.
Justice, as promised, walked from room to room where the various groups trying to settle on a budget strategy had gathered.
HOPPY KERCHEVAL: Justice’s budget shuttle diplomacy
Senate Republicans were in the Governor’s Conference Room, Senate Democrats were in the administration’s communications office, House Republicans were in a conference room off the Governor’s Office, and House Democrats were in the administration’s legal offices.
Those who participated said the governor maintained his own point of view in favor of the income tax reductions championed by the Senate Republicans and in favor of increased taxes and fees to pay for highways construction.
But they also said the governor was making a good effort to listen and to try to identify common ground.
“I think it was probably one of the more productive series of conversations we’ve had with him,” said House Speaker Tim Armstead. “I would love to see this move forward with some type of agreement where we can move forward. If it doesn’t, then I think the conversation was positive.”
House Republicans — along with House Republicans and House Democrats — have been skeptical of the income tax reductions and accompanying sales tax increase favored by Senate Republicans and the governor.
Armstead said he was able to reiterate that position, along with Majority Leader Daryl Cowles, Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, assistant Finance Chairman Eric Householder, Judiciary Chairman John Shott and Majority Whip Carol Miller.
The House has favored a plan to keep the sales tax the same and forego the broadest aspects of the income tax changes in favor of extending the sales tax to economic sectors such as telecommunications and communications.
The House plan would exempt sales tax for veterans retirement and Social Security income — as would the most recent version of the Senate plan.
“We had a good discussion with the governor. We shared with him a lot of concerns we had about where the Senate plan has been and where we feel like there were real advantages of going with the bipartisan House bill,” said Armstead, R-Kanawha.
“I think he is genuinely trying to find somewhere that each of those concerns can be met in the middle. Whether we can get there or not, I think we still have work to do, but I think it’s a positive step.”
Senate Republicans, likewise, were able to state their position — although the governor, a Democrat, and Senate Republicans have been working together on a plan since the regular legislative session ended.
“The governor has agreed with the Senate plan to cut taxes on income,” said Senate President Mitch Carmichael, who was joined in the negotiation by Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump and senators Ed Gaunch and Craig Blair.
The Senate designees did not include Finance Chairman Mike Hall, who has expressed concern about predicted budget holes in coming years, or Senator Robert Karnes, who led the Senate’s Select Committee on Tax Reform.
Senate Republicans passed a version of their plan — for the third time this special session — Wednesday afternoon. Senate Democrats voted against it.
Then the House of Delegates, which had already voted down two different version of the plan, voted unanimously to refuse to consent to the latest passage.
That seemed like it was going to set up a conference committee, but Justice said he wanted time to try room-to-room diplomacy with all sides.
“It’s a little unconventional and unorthodox,” said Carmichael, R-Jackson. “However, I see the value in it. The governor’s been going from room to room. We’ve all been talking about the problems and how you confront them in this state. It’s very challenging times.
“So we want to do what’s right for the people of West Virginia. So we in the Senate want to provide tax cuts for working West Virginia families. So we’re very intent on following through with that commitment. Likewise, we recognize that we have to fund a budget that provides vital services for our state.”
Senate Democrats who gathered Thursday included Minority Leader Roman Prezioso along with Corey Palumbo, Glenn Jeffries and Robert Plymale.
House Democrats included Minority Leader Tim Miley and delegates Brent Boggs, Mike Caputo and Stephen Baldwin.
Appearing on MetroNews’ “Talkline” before the discussions began, Miley said the process laid out by Justice deserved a chance.
“I don’t know what the likelihood of success is. I guess that would depend on how much people are dug in on their positions,” said Miley, D-Harrison. “But I do think the ones I’ve talked with down here, including Senate Democrats and House Republicans — that everyone’s at least open minded to try to come off any hard and fast positions.”
Miley, a lawyer, said he is accustomed to participating in mediation — but rarely those led by the governor.
“The key is identifying the areas of common ground and taking that off the table so we can really focus on the areas of disagreement and really dig into where we can get to in those areas,” Miley said.
“But if we keep all of the issues on the table, even the ones people agree on, it’s just a constant circular argument.”
— MetroNews (@WVMetroNews) May 25, 2017