- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 14, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - West Virginia’s Republican-led Legislature passed a tax hike-dependent budget Tuesday that should receive the Democratic governor’s blessing, ending a 17-day special session and quelling concerns that the government could shut down July 1.

After a budget veto and a session that cost taxpayers $595,000, lawmakers sent Democratic Earl Ray Tomblin a budget that heeds his advice to increase taxes on cigarettes, e-cigarettes and other tobacco products.

“While it’s fair to say that nobody walked away from these negotiations truly happy, Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate were able to come together to do what is best for West Virginians,” Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, said in a statement.

The tax increase would produce $98 million a year. Together with program cuts, money retrieved from agency accounts and $65 million from the state’s savings, that should close a $270 million budget gap, caused largely by steeply declining revenues from coal and low natural gas prices.

The government faces a July 1 shutdown without a budget, but Tomblin is expected to sign the new plan, said governor spokesman Chris Stadelman. In a statement Monday, Tomblin said the budget “addresses the state’s finances in a responsible manner during difficult times.”

In an election-year fight, House lawmakers had killed all taxes they considered until this week. The tax split both political parties, but the majority of both Democrats and Republicans ultimately voted for the final tax hike Monday.

Last month, negotiations imploded when the House doomed a $76 million bill with a smaller, 45-cent per-pack cigarette tax hike. All but one of 36 Democrats joined a swath of anti-tax Republicans to defeat that measure. Some Democrats lamented that the tax increase wasn’t big enough.

Last week, Tomblin vetoed a GOP-passed budget plan that would have drained $183 million from state savings and raised no taxes, calling it irresponsible.

In the second tobacco tax vote, which includes a 65-cent per-pack cigarette increase, Democrats were encouraged by Tomblin’s promise to introduce a bill guaranteeing more money to reduce health premium increases and benefit cuts for state employees, teachers and retirees. The health plan bill passed by lawmakers guaranteed $15 million a year for four years.

“The budget is not perfect, but it represents a compromise between the Governor’s Office and the Legislature and passage of this legislation will prevent a government shutdown that would have hurt state workers, teachers and West Virginians who rely on the services that the State of West Virginia provides,” House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said in a statement.

Tomblin called the special session after lawmakers failed to agree on a budget in the normal 60-plus days allotted each winter. Late in the regular session, lawmakers were informed revenue estimates had drastically worsened.

Also on Tuesday, lawmakers favored giving Boone County schools $2.2 million to pay their teachers and service personnel amid a funding crisis due to coal’s collapse. Tomblin introduced the legislation.

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