- Associated Press - Monday, March 14, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) - West Virginia lawmakers returned to the Capitol on Monday to brainstorm about a budget hampered by falling tax money from the struggling coal mining industry and low-priced natural gas.

There was no immediate sign from lawmakers about how they could agree to bridge a gap between the House plan, which would tap reserves and sweep agency accounts, and a Senate version that raises taxes. The likely outcome will be a budget standoff, and Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin may have to call lawmakers back in a month or two to try again. The next budget year starts July 1.

The Republican-led Legislature is dealing with a $466 million gap in the 2017 budget, which is up for discussion in the session slated to end Tuesday. Lawmakers wrapped their regular 60-day session Saturday.

After lawmakers overrode four of his vetoes on policy bills this year, Tomblin will have much more control in how the budget is shaped. A policy bill requires a simple majority of lawmakers to agree on an override. For items within the budget, it takes a two-thirds vote by the Legislature to override vetoes, a mark that the GOP leadership can’t meet without some Democrats on their side. Tomblin can eliminate or reduce individual spending items, or veto the whole budget.

Already, Tomblin has said he will veto a budget that taps into the state Rainy Day Fund reserves. Tomblin encouraged House lawmakers to rethink their resistance to increasing more stable taxes, particularly after he has cut many state agencies by about 20 percent over the past three years. Tomblin brought up a hike to taxes on tobacco, cellphone and landlines - all of which died.

“Obviously, if we cannot do that, the only other thing we can do is make hundreds of millions of dollars in cuts and it will be very draconian,” Tomblin said. “It’s going to be layoffs, there are going to be facilities shut down, and I think people are probably not going to be very happy about that.”

The state used $100 million from the reserves in 2014, $14.8 million last year and will use $51.8 million to patch up the back-end of this year’s lagging budget. It’s still well-stocked at $784 million.

Lawmakers say there is about $130 million left that they disagree about in their rivaling budget plans.

The House budget relies on $32 million from Rainy Day Fund reserves, $17 million in extra cuts and $72 million from agency accounts.

Senators would raise $115 million through higher tobacco taxes and $20 million by eliminating greyhound racing subsidies.

The House didn’t approve those revenues and others, including a $319 million bill passed by the Senate that would’ve helped fix roads by raising the sales tax, gas tax in certain scenarios and various fees at the DMV.

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