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Senate passes its budget bill; House soon to follow

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state Senate, in a party-line vote, passed a $4.225 billion budget bill.

The House of Delegates is now poised to pass a budget bill on Wednesday, although the House could make some changes. Both are up against a deadline to pass a state budget before the new fiscal year begins July 1.

The House now has both the Senate budget bill and its own that passed out of House Finance on Tuesday afternoon on second reading. The overall spending is about the same, although some of the details are different.

Meanwhile, a furlough bill that would give the governor flexibility in times of financial crisis has been sent to conference committee to work out differences between what passed the House and Senate.

The Senate version of the budget bill passed 22-12 on Tuesday evening, with all Democrats voting against it and all Republicans present voting in favor.

The Senate’s bill would cut about $33 million from the state’s higher education system, although it spares Shepherd University and BlueRidge Community and Technical College from additional cuts.

It also cuts $34 million in state Medicaid funding that would be subject to a 3-to-1 federal match — meaning $136 million in total funding would be sacrificed.

The budget bill benefited from the Justice administration agreeing to raise revenue estimates for the coming fiscal year to $4.225 billion — an increase credited to improving energy markets and the governor’s belief that massive highways construction will boost the state economy.

MORE: Read the revenue adjustment letter.

That meant the bill does not rely on Rainy Day funding. It also spares some state programs such as Medicaid assistance to the developmentally-impaired, fairs and festivals, public broadcasting and the Women’s Commission.

Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, who fielded a lot of questions from Democrats, said the Republican caucus had wanted to include personal income tax reductions within the framework of a balanced budget.

When that failed to gain broader support, Ferns said, the Senate Republicans fell back on their second goal of holding spending within the state funding currently available.

Democrats in the Senate expressed concern that the higher education cuts are too high when the state needs a well-educated population to match changing economies. And Democrats also said sacrificing so much Medicaid funding will harm vulnerable populations.

Speaking after the House floor session Tuesday evening, Speaker Tim Armstead said delegates will need time to study what the Senate passed. But Armstead said he hopes the House of Delegates can vote on a budget bill sometime Wednesday.

Armstead said delegates are likely to make some changes to what the Senate passed, including changing the mix of cuts. In particular, Armstead said higher education takes too large a cut in the Senate bill.

Armstead expressed disappointment that a conference committee considering a revenue bill that would have raised roughly an additional $67 million ended in a stalemate.

Senate Democrats, House Republicans and House Democrats voted in favor of the bill — an overall majority. But the three Senate Republican appointees didn’t sign the official conference report, meaning the conference lacked a majority from the Senate.

That bill would have raised additional revenue largely through extending the sales tax to additional economic sectors.

Even a tax to telecommunications — largely found acceptable to the governor and all caucuses — has failed to make it through the legislative process because it’s been tied up with other, more controversial measures. The telecommunications tax was said to raise an extra $60 million.

Jim Justice

Governor Jim Justice earlier this week indicated he would strongly consider vetoing any bill that he believes goes too deeply on cuts.

“I would be really inclined to veto anything that would come to me that will hurt our people more,” Justice said.

“You’re going to be faced with a decision that is just this — shut down the government or hurt our people more.”

Justice pointed at his own plan on a whiteboard and said, “If we don’t do this and do it right now, mark it down: I am right; there is going to be carnage.”

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