- Associated Press - Monday, January 12, 2015

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - State officials and stakeholders met Monday to mull how issues ranging from environmental policy to the looming budget shortfall might be handled when Republicans take majorities at the Capitol this week.

At the AP Legislative Lookahead at Charleston Newspapers, panelists discussed issues for cities, the state Freedom of Information Act, stagnant state revenues and water quality protection efforts after a massive chemical spill.

They also talked about what could change when Republicans control the state House of Delegates and Senate for the first time in more than eight decades.

In broad strokes, state Secretary of Revenue Bob Kiss described Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s budget proposal. The spending blueprint will be released Wednesday, the first day of West Virginia’s 60-day legislative session and when the majorities officially shifts from Democratic to Republican.

Amid a national Republican wave that resonated in West Virginia this election, the GOP flipped control of the state House to 64-36. After big GOP gains in the Senate, a Democratic senator changed parties to Republican to tip the majority at 18-16.

“I think the belief is generally shared within our chamber that jobs, by themselves, are the solution to everything that ails us in this state,” said incoming Republican Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer.

The budget picture isn’t all that rosy.

The state has to cover a $195 million expected gap next budget year, Kiss said. He expects less than $80 million to come from the state Rainy Day Fund and other savings to come from targeted cuts, which Kiss declined to describe in detail Monday.

Officials tapped $100 million from the Rainy Day Fund for the current budget, which didn’t affect important bond ratings for the well-stocked state reserves of $856 million, Kiss said.

Cole said he opposes using the Rainy Day Fund. He and incoming House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, also have opposed raising taxes. Cole said any new revenue needs to be offset by equivalent cuts.

One area that could be targeted for cuts is money subsidizing greyhound racing in the state, said Sen. Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson. In the current budget, 10 percent cuts to dog and horse racing funds stirred controversy.

Incoming Democratic Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said there’s not enough money to secure $195 million from budget cuts alone. He suggested raising the cigarette tax to yield about $100 million annually, a push that failed last legislative session under Democratic leadership. He also expressed opposition to tapping state reserves.

The Republican-led Legislature will craft the state budget, but Tomblin has line-item veto power over the final product.

Cole added that comprehensive tax reform would likely be a task for next year, calling it “a big one to bite off” this session. Tort reform will be a key focus this session, he said.

Panelists also debated the potential for changing a law to protect water supplies. Legislators passed it in response to a chemical spill from a leaky Freedom Industries tank last January. The spill spurred a tap-water ban for 300,000 people for days.

Corky DeMarco of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association said the law should be more focused on regulating aboveground storage tanks near water supplies.

Angie Rosser of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition said it’s important to protect rivers and streams in general. Her organization determined that half of the 50,000 tanks registered under the law are within 1,000 feet of surface water.

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