- Associated Press - Thursday, February 11, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - About halfway through the 60-day legislative session, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is expressing frustration that lawmakers haven’t considered options to plug a massive budget hole.

On Thursday, the Democratic governor told The Associated Press that the Republican-led Legislature hasn’t offered revenue-raising alternatives. Tomblin’s proposals to raise $71.5 million yearly through tobacco tax increases and $60 million annually through a proposed cellphone and landline use tax haven’t been considered yet.

The Senate’s finance committee put the tobacco tax bill on Friday’s agenda. Tax hikes face starker opposition in the House of Delegates.

“We’ve got to remember what our primary responsibility to the people is, and that’s to pass a balanced budget,” Tomblin said.

House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said it’s not a normal budget year due to the state’s economic downturn.

“We have to do our duty to balance our budget and to carefully weigh the state’s revenue needs versus the question of whether our taxpayers can absorb any further tax increases at this time,” Armstead said in a statement. “This is an important process, and we shouldn’t rush it just to calm the governor’s nerves.”

Many state agencies have faced 20 percent combined cuts over the last three years. Tomblin said the 6.5 percent cuts that lawmakers may consider could spur action that has largely been avoided, even during recent economic downturns - layoffs, elimination of programs and closure of a college or two.

Tomblin also opposes tapping state reserves again.

As coal and natural gas tax revenues fizzle, West Virginia faces a $384 million budget gap this year and a $466 million gap next year.

West Virginia’s public employees and retirees also are staring down $120 million in health benefits cuts for the 2017 budget year. Tomblin would use the tobacco hike to mitigate some of their higher costs.

On the floor Wednesday, Del. Eric Nelson, the House’s budget chief, promised a solution for the health benefits that both parties support.

“We will be coming to this body, and it will be bipartisan, with the best solution or a solution that we can offer our employees,” said Nelson, R-Kanawha.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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