- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 12, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - West Virginia faces a $353 million budget hole, two Senate leaders are running for governor and it’s unclear if the GOP will maintain its current Senate majority.

Starting Wednesday, West Virginia’s 60-day legislative session will weave together painful budget choices, election year political ambition and Republican efforts to usher in controversial changes, including right-to-work.

Here are some key story lines.



Gubernatorial aspirations form the backdrop in the Senate, as President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, and Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, both vie for governor.

First however, Republicans need to know if they’ll still have the majority to pass their priorities.

Republican Sen. Daniel Hall recently resigned, potentially putting the majority and an ambitious Republican agenda in jeopardy. Hall was elected a Democrat in 2012 and turned Republican in 2014 to snap a Senate deadlock in the GOP’s favor at 18-16.

State law is ambiguous about whether to replace him with a Democrat or Republican, a determination ultimately up to the state Supreme Court. For the time being, the Senate stands at a 17-16 Republican majority.



Officials think the state will end the 2016 budget year $353 million short, and solutions won’t come easy.

Tax revenues from companies unearthing energy resources are in a downward spiral because of the state’s floundering coal industry and low natural gas prices.

Meanwhile, public employees and retirees face $120 million in cuts to their health benefits.

Tomblin has hinted he may support increasing state’s tobacco tax. He will release his budget proposal Wednesday.

House Democrats support hiking the tobacco tax on cigarettes, e-cigarettes and other products by $1 to raise $135 million, then by 10 cents a year for five years for another $60 million a year. They want the money specifically to offset cuts to public employee health benefits.

Cole has said he doesn’t favor raising taxes. House Republicans, who have a wide majority, have been even tougher to convince on tax increases.

The state has made 7.5 percent cuts across most state agencies for two years, and another round of 4 percent cuts last year. More cuts are likely, and a third-straight year of dipping into state reserves is possible.



For months, unions and business groups have clashed over a right-to-work push and a repeal of the prevailing wage promised by Republicans.

The fight has played out on TV and radio airwaves, and arrives at the Capitol Wednesday. Unions plan to protest against right-to-work on the first day of session.

West Virginia could become the 26th right-to-work state, meaning private-sector businesses couldn’t enter labor contracts requiring workers to pay union dues.

Republicans aren’t happy with the Tomblin administration’s changes to the prevailing wage from a compromise passed last year. They aim to eliminate the minimum threshold paid to contactors in public construction projects.

Tomblin is likely to veto those measures, and a simple majority is needed to override his disapproval.



Cole is focusing on economic policies, but guns, abortion, religious freedom and other issues will be in the mix.

Last year, Tomblin vetoed a bill to eliminate the requirement that people get permits before carrying concealed guns. Similar legislation is coming back.

A push to drug-test certain welfare recipients is on the table again. A “forced pooling” proposal to compel mineral rights owners to lease their oil and natural gas resources when other owners on the same tract have already agreed to is coming back.

Lawmakers hope to craft a “religious freedom” bill allowing businesses to choose their clientele based on religious beliefs. Senate Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said Republicans look to avoid the blowback that occurred in Indiana, where a religious freedom law drew uproar from big businesses and the public over perceived discrimination.

Introduction of charter schools and Uber ridesharing will be reconsidered. Both bills died last year partly because a pocket of Republicans disagreed with provisions to prohibit discrimination against gay and transgender people.

A proposal banning dismemberment of fetuses during abortions is also on deck.

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