CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Just weeks away from a possible government shutdown, Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on Wednesday delivered on his promise to veto a savings-reliant budget passed by the Republican-led Legislature.
Following his veto, Tomblin pointed out a deal he struck with the Senate that would include a 65-cent tax increase on cigarettes, expected to raise roughly $100 million a year. He encouraged the House to endorse it, but the chamber has killed every tax hike it has considered, and it is far from a sure thing that members would act any differently in an election year.
Lawmakers are back on a quick turnaround Sunday to consider their options. Without a budget, the government shuts down July 1.
Lawmakers are on a third go-round at striking a deal on the budget, which has been hit by coal’s downturn and low natural gas prices. They came up empty-handed during the regular session, which lasted more than 60 days, because revenue numbers came in worse than expected. The recent 13-day session, which cost taxpayers $455,000, resulted in Tomblin’s veto.
Tomblin consistently warned that he wouldn’t approve a plan heavily dependent on single-year patches. He offered several tax increase ideas, but none has succeeded so far.
“With the specter of a July 1, 2016, government shutdown looming, time is of the essence,” Tomblin wrote in his veto message. “Nevertheless, time remains for compromise and responsible action.”
GOP lawmakers passed their plan last week to cover a $270 million gap without raising taxes. Tomblin wrote that the plan irresponsibly relies on $292 million in one-time cash, including almost $190 million from reserves.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said the new deal struck with Tomblin would still allow for using $70 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund.
Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, said he was disappointed in the veto, but respected Tomblin’s wish to keep the Rainy Day Fund healthy.
“In order to avoid a government shutdown, it is time to put the partisan politics aside and work together to pass Governor Tomblin’s proposal,” Cole said.
Still, everything hinges on what the House does.
Negotiations imploded during the most recent budget session, when the House killed a $76 million bill raising cigarette and other tobacco product taxes.
Plenty of anti-tax Republicans joined with all but one Democrat to vote against the bill. Many Democrats argued that the increase should be higher to address the serious budget problem. Without new revenue coming in, the budget gap for 2018 will grow to $380 million.
House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, criticized Tomblin for the veto, saying it leaves state residents fearing a shutdown.
Armstead said there will likely be even less support among the GOP for the larger cigarette tax hike.
“We will continue working together to do all we can to pass a balanced budget and avoid an interruption in essential government services,” Armstead said.
“However, if the Governor believes his most recent proposal is the right direction, I can only assume that he will be a more active participant in gaining Democrat support for it than he has been in the past.”