Budget bill comes in at wire

CHARLESTON — West Virginia lawmakers passed a $4.96 billion general revenue budget Saturday in the final hours of the regular legislative session.

The budget included average 5% pay raises for state employees and a three-year phase-out of state taxes on Social Security, both priorities advocated by Gov. Jim Justice. There was some drama — and waiting — as key policy differences between the Senate and House of Delegates were untangled over the final two days of the session.

“It was basically a flat line budget. There was a little bit of an increase, but we did pay raises for our state employees and teachers and school service personnel. That’s a 5% average. It will cost us about $130 million in this budget to do it,” Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said Monday on “Panhandle Live” on WEPM Radio.

Justice had introduced a $5.22 billion general revenue budget, so what passed was millions of dollars less than that. There’s still some talk about a special session in May to round out some budget items, especially if some questions about state financial pressures can be resolved by then.

“I’m a big proponent of a special session in May,” Blair said.

The House of Delegates voted on a final version of the budget bill about 11:30 p.m. Saturday, with lots of delegates asking questions about specific spending items.

House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said many delegates had been broadly familiar with the budget outline over its legislative journey. He acknowledged that much of the discussion leading up to the budget’s passage was ensuring that pay raises and the tax cut on Social Security could be secured.

“We wanted to be sure that we captured that pay raise,” Hanshaw said on MetroNews’ “Talkline” Monday. “We were making sure we got the compromise position on the budget and all of the spending that we’ve done thus far included in the budget bill before it was finalized on the House floor on Saturday night.”

Delegate John Williams, D-Monongalia, pushed back during the Saturday evening floor session to say there wasn’t enough time to fully examine changes in the budget from what the governor introduced and what delegates saw earlier in the session. Williams, who serves on the House Finance Committee, reiterated the point on “Talkline.”

“We never had much of a chance to look at it before it was in the system at around 10:30, with an hour and a half to go in the session,” Williams said. “So this is an expenditure of billions of dollars from the Treasury. It would be nice if our budgeting process permitted more time to be able to consider how we might want to vote.”

He added, “This process, even under the best circumstances is confusing because you want to compare it to last year’s budget. You want to compare it to the budget that the governor proposed on day one; you want to compare it to what we sent across the hall. So before you even start, you have three different aspects you’d like to compare it with, and that can be confusing.”

Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, said those weighty issues got held up as the Republican majorities in the Senate and House negotiated over a bill changing the unemployment safety net.

“The reason it took to the last minute is those bills were some that the Senate was holding hostage over their unemployment bill. There wasn’t a real appetite for the unemployment cuts in the House, but Republicans were forced to run it because the Senate was holding up the pay raises and the elimination of the income tax on Social Security,” Pushkin said on “The Dave Allen Show” on WCHS Radio.

“I think that, obviously, we were all in favor of these raises. We need to be able to at least offset these premium increases to PEIA, which Democrats did not support last session, but we have to at least make up for that.”

Sen. Mike Oliverio, R-Monongalia, saw advancement of the unemployment bill as a key to unlocking the other legislation.

“We were really hoping to reform our state’s unemployment compensation fund,” he said. “When we try to recruit businesses or encourage businesses to grow, one of the things on our checklist that is still not terribly attractive to folks making economic development decisions is our unemployment compensation fund, premiums, benefits, et cetera. So we were really trying to reform that,” he said.

“We had hoped the House would have acted much sooner on that, but we worked together and were able to come up with a compromise within literally a few hours of the session ending. So we were pleased to do that. That then sort of broke the dam and allowed some of the other things to follow.”

Oliverio, speaking on “Talk of the Town” on WAJR Radio, said that included the phase-out of the tax on Social Security and the pay raise.

“The elimination of the West Virginia personal income tax on benefits for all people drawing Social Security, I think will really help the elderly in our community. Pay raises for teachers and public employees, I think will be helpful. So those were a few of the positive things that came from the session.”