- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 15, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - West Virginia’s Division of Forestry will lay off 37 workers to address a $1.7 million shortfall in the new budget year that starts July 1, the agency said Wednesday.

According to a news release, the Division of Forestry requested the state Personnel Board’s approval to lay off the 37 employees, which include one part-time and 36 full-time workers. The layoffs would be determined by least seniority. Twenty-seven of the positions paid between $31,164 and $57,660 annually.

This year, the Republican-led Legislature rejected a push by Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin that would have fully funded the Division of Forestry, leading to the layoffs of more than one-third of the agency’s workforce, the release said.

The affected employees work in fire protection, logging and timber management programs. On top of the 37 layoffs, five vacant jobs will be eliminated.

The release says the timber industry had been paying a severance tax to help chip away at a workers’ compensation debt, which is now paid off. Tomblin proposed moving that tax revenue to fund the Division of Forestry.

The timber industry fought for a lower severance tax than Tomblin proposed, and lawmakers passed the smaller tax rate. A budget shortfall followed, spurring the layoffs, the release said.

“This is the first time during my tenure as cabinet secretary that I’ve ever had to lay off employees, and it is by far the most difficult task I have faced,” Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette said in the release. “The 37 employees affected by this reduction are more than just numbers. They are real, hard-working West Virginians.”

The Division of Forestry provides forest-fire protection for the state and regulates the logging industry in coordination with the Department of Environmental Protection.

Lawmakers passed a budget for the cash-strapped state Tuesday, which Tomblin will likely sign to avert a July 1 government shutdown.

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