CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Legislators wrapped up the 2016 regular session with a comparatively low-key 60thday of the session – but with prospects of a serious state budget impasse looming.
Unlike the hectic pace of past final days of the session, the 2016 session drew to a close with a relatively light agenda – with key bills such as right-to-work and repeal of the state’s Prevailing Wage Act enacted early in the session in order to override gubernatorial vetoes.
However, unlike past years, when details of the state budget bill have been worked out in a brief extended session the week after the regular session ends, quick resolution of the 2016-17 state spending plan was looking impossible as the session ended Saturday.
“I’m obviously going to have to call the Legislature back into special session,” Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said Saturday evening, acknowledging that House-Senate budget conferees will not be able to reach agreement on the $4.3 billion state budget.
The likelihood of a budget impasse was exacerbated Saturday when the Senate failed to act on a House bill that would sweep some $72 million out of various state agency accounts to balance the House’s version of the budget (HB 4742).
Without that revenue, the House’s 2016-17 budget plan becomes unbalanced, a problem already facing the Senate’s budget proposal, which relies on $139 million of tax increases, including $115 million of tobacco tax hikes – tax increases that were soundly rejected in the House of Delegates.
Tomblin said that he will include tax increase proposals on the special session call when he calls the Legislature back to Charleston to pass the budget bill, saying the only other option would be to make draconian cuts to state agencies and programs.
“There’s going to be layoffs. There’s going to be facilities shut down,” Tomblin warned, citing a report from state agencies earlier this session on how they would absorb an additional 6.5 percent spending cut.
Also during the final week of the 2016 regular session:
— Tempers flared at midweek, when the Senate Confirmations Committee arbitrarily rejected confirmation of six individuals – all with ties to organized labor or the state Democratic Party.
Those included Kenny Perdue, state AFL-CIO president, to the Workforce Development Board; Elaine Harris, Communications Workers of America international representative, to the PEIA Finance Board; and state Democratic Party chairwoman Belinda Biafore to the state Women’s Commission.
Afterward, Confirmations Committee Chairwoman Donna Boley, R-Pleasants, said she was given a list of names to reject by Senate leadership, commenting, “It was like a partisan thing, you vote, you know.”
That outraged Senate Democrats, who threatened to slow the session to a crawl by invoking a requirement that all bills be read in their entirety on the Senate floor.
However, in the interim, Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, extended an olive branch to Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, apologizing and agreeing to confirm the appointees.
Those appointments were confirmed on the final day of the session.
— The Senate passed 17-16 a resolution calling for an Article V convention for a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution (HCR 36).
That adds West Virginia to a list of about 28 states that have adopted resolutions calling for a convention limited to a balanced budget amendment, although legal scholars have questioned whether such a constitutional convention could be limited to a single issue.
Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, denounced the resolution as one of the “silly, ideological votes” that led to what he called partisan gridlock in the Senate, with divisive bills passing on party-line 18-16 votes.
“We had a chance to work together and resolve real problems facing West Virginia,” he said, describing the 2016 session as “opportunities lost.”
However, Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, R-Putnam, downplayed concerns that a convention could lead to wholesale revisions to the Constitution.
“I don’t think the Article V convention is going to rewrite the Constitution. It’s simply to propose amendments to the Constitution.”
— Facing budget woes, the House decided to shelve a proposal to lower severance taxes on coal and natural gas beginning in 2018 (SB 705). Instead, legislators will study possible severance tax cuts, which industry officials say would help them compete with operations in states with lower taxes, during legislative interim meetings this year.
Estimates were that the reduced tax rates would cost the state more than $130 million a year in lost tax revenue.
— Sunday brunches could soon feature mimosas and Bloody Marys, after the Legislature approved a bill Saturday to remove a longstanding ban on alcohol sales before 1 p.m. on Sundays (SB 298).
However, at the House’s insistence, restaurants and resorts wishing to serve alcoholic beverages Sunday mornings will have to get voters in their home counties to approve a referendum authorizing the earlier sales.
Phil Kabler is a Statehouse reporter/columnist for The Charleston Gazette and a contributing columnist to the West Virginia Press Association. He can be followed on Twitter at @PhilKabler.