The Back Pew

Folks often imagine political deals happening in dark rooms filled with cigars and card games. That’s not true in West Virginia. Ours happen in unoccupied offices filled with coffee and donuts!

For the past week, I’ve been involved in budget negotiations with legislative leaders and the governor to try and iron out a budget compromise. I wondered why I was invited, until it became apparent how divided we were. I think they asked me there to pray us through the conflict.

At our first meeting, Gov. Justice delivered a simple and timely message: We need to get this budget done. People are depending on us, and shame on us if we can’t get past politics to pass a responsible budget.

Everyone agreed, but the devil is always in the details. So after going back and forth for days, Gov. Justice synthesized everyone’s views and presented a compromise plan that gives each party something they want and therefore no one gets everything they want.
In very broad strokes (because I’ve written about these details for weeks now), he proposed raising some revenue (via a slight sales tax increase and removing some exemptions) to fill the budget gap, reducing the income tax in a limited and targeted way to ensure folks aren’t hurt by higher consumption taxes, and moving full speed ahead on the roads plan … because the jobs and infrastructure it creates literally pave the path to our future.

It has something for everyone. Democrats in the House and Senate wanted to ensure working folks weren’t hurt by further cuts to health care, public schools, infrastructure, and colleges/universities; they got it. House Republicans wanted a broader tax base; they got it. Senate Republicans wanted income tax reform; they got it. Governor Justice wanted a budget that will allow him to fund his vision; he got it.

That’s not to say this is a done deal. Far from it. The House and Senate go back into Session on Monday, June 5. Both bodies must have time to read, debate, and vote upon the bills that correspond to the budget framework…and they must pass.

A contingent of House Republicans refuse to vote for any tax increases whatsoever, so they will vote against it. A group of Senate Republicans think this plan doesn’t go far enough with income tax reductions, so they will vote against it. Some Democrats in both chambers refuse to vote for anything that includes income tax changes, even if they like other parts of the compromise, so they will vote against it. The compromise needs a bipartisan vote in favor to pass. Party whips are busy counting votes as we speak, so the outcome is unknown.

Both parties in the House held caucuses Wednesday night, and I understand there was not a clear consensus. Time still exists for folks to come on board or for the compromise to change and thereby attract support. Negotiations continue Thursday and possibly Friday.

As a practical guy who wants to get this budget done, I hope we can find enough adults willing to compromise for the good of the state.

That’s the view from the back pew this week. Take care.

(Delegate Stephen Baldwin is a local pastor and member of the WV House. You may reach him at 304-404-4207 or stephen.baldwin@wvhouse.gov)

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