Commentary: At the Capitol

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By Phil Kabler
For WV Press Association

As the 60-day regular session of the Legislature passed the midway point, Gov. Jim Justice marked the occasion with a press conference to lament the seeming lack of progress on resolving a $500 million deficit in the upcoming 2017-18 state budget.

“This is the sole and only piece of legislation that has to be passed,” Justice said of the budget. “It’s got to be done. I have no clue why in the world it’s not being done.”

Justice held the news conference outside of the governor’s reception room in the Capitol, where he has installed a flat screen TV monitor featuring a display that is counting down the days, hours, minutes and seconds remaining in the regular session.

Justice said he is frustrated that the legislative leadership has yet to come up with a counterproposal on his budget plan – or more accurately, the two budget options he has offered.

His first proposal would raise about $400 million in new taxes, primarily through a business gross receipts tax and an increase in the consumer sales tax. He later came up with a Budget 2.0 plan that would raise about $330 million, predominately through higher taxes on tobacco and on sugary soft drinks.

Both Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, R-Putnam, and House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, have both said work is ongoing on alternate budget proposals.

“It’s a work in progress,” Nelson said following Justice’s press conference, adding, “We’ll definitely have something to the floor before the last day of the session.”

The legislative proposals are expected to rely predominately or entirely on spending cuts to close the $500 million budget gap – something Justice has said cannot be done without crippling functions of state government.

Justice said he is willing to listen to proposals for spending cuts, and said his administration is looking at ways to consolidate programs and services and reduce costs, but said, “We can’t cut ourselves to oblivion.”

He added, “If we take anything else away, it’s going to drive more people out of West Virginia.”

As the relationship between Justice and legislative leaders has grown increasingly testy, the governor upped the ante by calling Republican legislators who are adamantly opposed to any tax increases, “part of the problem, not part of the solution.”

“You’ve got a faction saying, “I’m a Republican first and I’m a West Virginian second,” and I don’t like that,” Justice said, suggesting that if his private sector employees showed the same level of inaction, he would fire them.

Last year, on the 30th day of the 2016 session, then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin did interviews expressing his frustration that the session has half over, with no legislative action on his proposals to close what was then a $350 million deficit in the 2016-17 budget.

That was on Feb. 11, 2016. The Legislature ultimately passed the budget bill on June 14, 124 days later.

Justice, however, said there won’t be a repeat of that type of budget impasse on his watch.

“We won’t be going home. That’s all there is to it,” Justice said, saying he will keep the Legislature in session, potentially without pay, until they come up with a budget.

Meanwhile, partisan tensions grew in the Senate, when the Confirmations Committee rejected two gubernatorial appointments, arguably because of their ties to the Democrat Party.

The Senate denied confirmations to Belinda Biafore, chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, and Jo Marie Chandler, daughter of former state party chairman Larry Puccio, to serve on the state Unemployment Compensation Board of Review.

Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, moved to block both appointments, contending that both women lacked experience in adjudicating claims. The board hears appeals of administrative law judges’ hearings on awarding unemployment claims.

“It’s pretty clear to me, and it’s obvious to anyone in this room that this is politically motivated,” Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, argued.

Also, the week at the Legislature saw an emotional debate on the House floor over an amendment that would have effectively legalized medical marijuana in the state.

The amendment to a bill that annually revises the state’s drug classifications list would have moved marijuana to a classification of drugs that can be prescribed by doctors.

“The intent is clear. It is to help people,” Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, said of the proposal, which was rejected on a 35-64 vote.

Bills to legalize medical marijuana have been bottled up in the House and Senate this session.