- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 13, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - For the first time since the 1930s, Republicans will set the course for the West Virginia Legislature’s 60-day lawmaking session, which kicks off Wednesday.

A national GOP wave this election also ended more than eight decades of Democratic rule in Charleston. Republicans will have a 64-36 edge in the House of Delegates and an 18-16 majority in the Senate.

Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin still can veto bills he deems unsavory. But Republicans only need a simple majority - more ‘yes’ than ‘no’ votes - to overturn Tomblin’s veto. There’s a tougher threshold to overturn budget vetoes.

Here is a look at key issues as Republicans take control.

BUDGET SHOWDOWN

Republican lawmakers and Tomblin haven’t yet agreed how to fill a $195 million expected budget gap next year.

Tomblin’s budget proposal will include tapping less than $80 million from the state Rainy Day Fund, an $856 million reserve in excellent shape. The current spending plan took $100 million from the fund, the first time it’s been accessed to fill a budget hole.

Tomblin’s budget will also include unspecified targeted cuts, but no higher taxes.

Republicans don’t want to touch reserves, said incoming Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, and House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha. Nor do they want to raise taxes, unless offset by equivalent cuts. Instead, budget cuts would fill the gap. Cutting subsidies for greyhound and horse racing is under consideration, Armstead said.

Incoming Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, also opposes tapping reserves, but he said Republicans can’t find $195 million in budget cuts. He has floated the idea of increasing the cigarette tax, worth about $100 million.

Tomblin has line-item veto power over whatever budget Republicans pass.

TORT REFORM

Republicans want to change West Virginia’s legal system, calling it too burdensome on business.

Cole some reforms could come in the areas of joint and several liability; trespassing and property owners’ rights; and venue shopping, where out-of-state groups bring class action suits into West Virginia’s court systems.

Kessler said reports that demean West Virginia’s judicial environment are a “bunk.” He said he also would consider supporting a new intermediate appeals court.

CHEMICAL SPILL LAW

Lawmakers could scale back requirements in a wide-ranging law to protect water supplies, which passed after a chemical spill last January that spurred a tap-water ban for 300,000 people for days.

Industry groups, like oil and gas interests, say regulations on aboveground storage tanks are overly broad and focus should shift to those near water supplies.

Environmental groups say all waterways should be protected from potential spills.

Under the law, about 20,000 of 50,000 tanks that require inspections missed a Jan. 1 deadline to submit certifications. Officials also found 1,100 tanks statewide were unfit for use. Eighty of them were operating near water supplies, contained hazardous materials, or both.

RENEWABLE ENERGY PORTFOLIO

Armstead said the first bill on the House agenda is a repeal of the state’s Alternative and Renewable Energy Portfolio Act, which passed under former Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin, now a U.S. senator.

The law requires generating 25 percent of electricity with renewable or alternative power sources by 2025. However, several coal-burning technologies count toward that 25 percent. An existing coal power plant in Morgantown qualifies, for example.

Republicans are using it as a wedge issue against Manchin, who is considering another run at governor next year. They depict it as a cap-and-trade law that’s bad for coal and consumers.

Manchin says the depiction is erroneous and politically driven. He pointed out that coal industry and power company interests had no problem with the law. Some even helped craft the legislation.

DELETING A BUSINESS TAX

The GOP is looking at eliminating the state’s equipment and inventory tax, saying it impedes business growth.

Kessler, who said the tax brings in about $225 million a year, countered that the money provides local funding for schools.

Lawmakers passed hundreds of millions of dollars in tax cuts the last several years, and the corresponding growth hasn’t happened, Kessler said.

Armstead said the House may consider offsetting the lost local money with the increased severance tax from the natural gas boom in northern West Virginia.

Cole has said that a more comprehensive tax reform discussion would have to wait until the 2016 session.

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