- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 2, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - West Virginia’s Republican-led Legislature on Tuesday approved taking $51.8 million from reserves to avoid being late on the state’s bills amid a grim budget.

The 96-2 House of Delegates vote sends Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin the first of several bills he proposed to patch a $384 million budget gap this year. Senators already passed it unanimously.

The Democratic governor’s office said if the bill didn’t pass early this week, the state would risk delays in paying some bills. The proposal also relies on $6.7 million from other state accounts.

West Virginia’s finances are suffering from deep drops in severance tax cash from the struggling coal mining industry and natural gas, which is experiencing low prices. The 2017 budget gap is projected to be even bigger at $466 million.

The bill also faced a day’s delay because of a political exchange over another big budget headache.

On Jan. 29, Democrats proposed using funds from the reserves and other state accounts to address $120 million in cuts to state employee and retiree health benefits next budget. Republican leadership stalled action on the amendment until Monday, when the House voted it down on party lines.

Democrats chided Republican leadership for not moving bills to address the ailing health benefits. Tomblin has proposed increasing tobacco taxes to mitigate health plan cuts, and tax hikes face opposition from many Republican lawmakers.

“This is the number one priority for us, is to fix PEIA (the Public Employees Insurance Agency),” said Del. Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton.

Del. Eric Nelson, a Kanawha County Republican and House budget chief, said deadlines to pay bills for Medicaid, welfare recipients, the disabled and seniors are rapidly approaching.

With bills due immediately, Republicans called the Democratic amendment political pandering.

“This bill needs to pass right now, without changes, to fund a cash shortfall that hits us starting Friday,” Nelson said Monday.

The governor’s office criticized the approach from within his party’s House caucus. Tomblin spokesman Chris Stadelman said it wasn’t the appropriate way to deal with 2017 health benefits by trying to amend the bill for 2016.

Instead, he said lawmakers should move on his proposal.

“At the same time, Gov. Tomblin urges the Legislature to act quickly on the responsible plan that he has submitted to fund PEIA so our hardworking employees do not face the major cuts proposed for the coming year,” Stadelman said.

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