By Phil Kabler
For the West Virginia Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — After 13 days in special session, the Legislature passed a budget bill for the 2016-17 budget year – a bill that the spokesman for Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said is “irresponsible” and will be vetoed by the governor.
“The Governor thinks it’s an irresponsible plan that leaves long-term structural holes, and he will not approve it,” Tomblin spokesman Chris Stadelman said Friday.
The veto will force legislators to return to Charleston to take another crack at finding ways to close a $270 million shortfall in the 2016-17 state budget.
Unable after 13 days to pass any tax increases or come up with major spending cuts, legislators Thursday passed a budget bill (HB101) that would have closed the spending gap using $182.6 million of Rainy Day emergency reserve funds, and $62.4 million of one-time funds swept from various accounts.
That was despite a warning from Tomblin early in the special session that he would not approve any budget plan that used more than a “few million dollars” of Rainy Day funds.
“The Governor has consistently said we can’t use one-time monies and excessive Rainy Day funds to balance the budget,” Stadelman said.
Besides endangering the state’s bond ratings, the budget bill does nothing to address projected shortfalls of $380 million in the fiscal 2018 and 2019 budgets, he said.
On Thursday, Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, R-Putnam, conceded as much, telling the Senate, ““It does not bode well going forward, I agree with you.”
Hall had attempted to advance two of three revenue measures Tomblin proposed in the special session call – a tobacco tax increase, and a temporary increase in the consumer sales tax – but got significant pushback on both.
A proposed 45-cent a pack increase in the cigarette tax was defeated on the House floor, as House Democrats who favored a $1 a pack cigarette tax hike joined with no-tax Republicans to defeat the bill by a 44-55 margin.
A last-ditch attempt to advance a three-year, ½ percent increase in the sales tax to raise about $100 million a year was defeated Wednesday in Senate Finance Committee on a 6-10 vote, with 5 Democrats joining with 5 Republicans to defeat the measure.
“The public has asked us to pass a budget. I’m doing it with the only tools I have,” Hall told the Senate. “I basically tried to get revenue, or we wouldn’t have this budget before you.”
The bill passed the Senate on a party line 18-16 vote, and then won concurrence in the House by 60-37 margin, but without much enthusiasm from either side of the aisle.
Sen. Ed Gaunch, R-Kanawha, complained that the budget bill did nothing to eliminate “duplication, inefficiency and waste” in government.
“The truth is, we haven’t done anything,” he said of the bill. “It’s smoke and mirrors. This is Kabuki theater, if you ask me.”
“This budget is a lie because we say it is a balanced budget, and it is not,” said Delegate Tim Manchin, D-Marion. “We should not lie to the people of West Virginia. Certainly, we should not lie to them so they will send us back here in the fall (election).”
About the strongest support advocates of the bill could muster was to note that the state has to have some budget plan in place by July 1 to avoid a state government shutdown.
“We’re not going to able, we’ve shown, to pass revenue measures between the House and Senate, the Republicans and the Democrats,” said Delegate Bill Anderson, R-Wood. “This is the vehicle we have in front of us right now. It may not be the vehicle we would prefer to ride in.”
With the July 1 deadline looming, Stadelman said the governor is working on a new, concise budget plan to present to legislators when they return to Charleston. He said tax increases are “going to have to be part of the solution” to balance the budget.
On Thursday, the Legislature recessed the special session until June 12, and Stadelman said Tomblin had not decided Friday whether to call the Legislature back earlier than that.
“Time is obviously of the essence. We will take action as quickly as possible,” Stadelman said. “The governor obviously does not want to see state government shut down, but we also have to have a responsible budget.”
Legislators could attempt to override the governor’s veto, but probably lack the two-thirds majority vote needed to override a veto of a budget bill. That is especially unlikely in the Senate, where the 18-member Republican majority would need to sway five Senate Democrats to vote to override Tomblin’s veto.