- Associated Press - Thursday, May 19, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - Facing a budget dilemma in a testy election year, West Virginia senators on Thursday narrowly kept alive the last tax hike that appears to stand any chance in the GOP-led Legislature: higher taxes on cigarettes, other tobacco products and e-cigarettes.

Lawmakers must patch a $270 million remaining gap using tax hikes, cuts or use of reserves, with plenty of possible political ramifications. An unprecedented government shutdown could ensue if there’s no budget before July 1.

Thursday’s 17-16 Senate vote saw 15 of 16 Democrats in opposition and 16 of 18 Republican in favor of the hike. Sen. Robert Karnes, an Upshur County Republican who said he would have been a ‘no,’ left the floor during the vote, and a tie would have killed the bill. Karnes said no one asked him to leave during the vote.

The tax, which would yield $78 million annually, faces even tougher odds in the House of Delegates, where factions of Republicans and Democrats have opposed it.

Democratic senators said they voted no Thursday because the revenue from the tax hike, including another 45 cents per pack of cigarettes, wouldn’t solve the budget crisis. Previously, a Democrat tried unsuccessfully to make the cigarette tax hike $1 per pack, which would produce $115 million instead of $78 million. The current tax is 55 cents.

“Without knowing what the leadership’s comprehensive budget proposal is, it is irresponsible of the Senate to pass temporary piecemeal solutions,” Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said in a news release.

Senate President Bill Cole, a Mercer County Republican who supported the tax increase, pointed out that Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin sponsored the tax package. He pointed out that a successful Democratic amendment just the day before required $43 million to refuel Public Employee Insurance Agency health benefits for state workers, retirees and teachers.

“When it came time to vote, only Senator Corey Palumbo (D-Kanawha) had the courage to vote for the issues the Democratic Caucus has been fighting for the past six months with the other 15 members voting against PEIA, the PROMISE (college) Scholarship, and a budget,” Cole said in a news release.

In the House, where the GOP has a 64-36 majority, a coalition of about a dozen Republicans, nicknamed the “Liberty Caucus,” held an unconventional closed meeting Wednesday with Democrats to discuss opposition to the tax.

Some House Democrats have opposed the 45-cent tax increase bill, saying it does little to improve health and address budget needs. They have called for a $1 per pack hike.

“I called the meeting to form a coalition, to prevent taxes from being increased on the backs of the working poor,” said Del. Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock.

Still, House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said Wednesday he believes the bill will pass.

Tomblin called lawmakers into budget session Monday.

Each day of the session costs about $35,000. Thursday marked the fourth day. The session could continue into next week.

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