Lawmakers OK budget, begin special session

CHARLESTON – Public schools and Medicaid are among the major spenders of a multibillion-dollar state budget passed Wednesday in the West Virginia Legislature, which also fixed three bills vetoed because of technical errors before beginning a brief special session convened by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

The House of Delegates voted 86-11 to approve the compromise spending measure, with Republicans opposing the bill including Minority Leader Tim Armstead and Minority Whip Daryl Cowles. A unanimous Senate sent it to Tomblin.

The corrected regular session bills included one updating the process for applying for a concealed handgun permit. Another allows adjoining counties to share oversight of schools they decide to open jointly. The third clarifies language in the state’s new anti-human trafficking law that targets forced prostitution while allowing lawsuits and compensation claims from victims of trafficking.

Tomblin’s special session agenda mostly aims to revive bills that stalled before the regular session ended Saturday. Both chambers unanimously approved $4 million for volunteer fire department insurance costs. They also voted to allow tax-supported financing for a baseball stadium and highway interchange planned for the Morgantown area. Delegates Ron Fragale and Richard Iaquinta, both Harrison County Democrats, were the only legislators to oppose that bill.

A unanimous Senate advanced a $17.7 million funding measure meant for such purposes as storm relief, a new phone system for the attorney general’s office, state mental health care facilities and scholarships for pharmacy students at West Virginia and Marshall universities. Senators also voted 28-6 to reverse magistrate court pay cuts trigged by dropping populations in four counties. That proposal would hike pay in two more counties this year and in several others after the 2016 election, while ordering a study of county magistrate caseloads. House Republicans oppose that bill.

The agenda’s remaining item would update the state Tax Department’s authority so it can oversee both the Morgantown-area project’s financing and limited tax changes allowed under regular session legislation allowing more self-governance by cities and towns.

With the next budget year starting July 1, Wednesday’s compromise spending plan includes $4.1 billion backed by general tax revenues. That’s $4.7 million less than what Tomblin initially proposed, and also nearly $14 million smaller than the general revenue budget passed last year.

Nearly half that general revenue portion goes to the Department of Education, with $1.85 billion as direct aid to county public schools. The wide-ranging measure won by Tomblin this session aiming to improve education requires the department to trim 5 percent from personnel costs in each of the next two budget years. Wednesday’s bill allows the state schools superintendent to make those cuts, by shifting the money to other school needs.

The mandated cuts respond to the critical audit of public schools that inspired Tomblin’s legislation. Among numerous findings, it highlighted a large number of state-level education staffers in West Virginia when compared to most other states.

Another $923.5 million will go to the Department of Health and Human Resources, which oversees Medicaid among its programs. The $75 million in cuts aimed to help free up funds in the face of rising Medicaid costs and weakening general revenues. Wednesday’s bill also taps unspent surplus for Medicaid as well as such other revenue sources as federal matching funds.

The House-Senate compromise sought to soften some of the 7.5 percent cuts ordered by Tomblin. Domestic violence programs will receive $187,500 more than what the governor proposed, for instance, while Wednesday’s bill restores $125,000 to anti-sexual assault efforts that Tomblin had zeroed out.

The compromise bill also provides a $13.5 million for a program that seeks waivers from federal officials so seniors on Medicaid patients can remain at home instead of institutions. Tomblin’s proposal had just under $12 million for that.

The State Police’s share of the new budget includes $3 million meant to allow a new trooper cadet class. Other spending spelled out in Wednesday’s measure includes $4.1 billion in federal funds and block grants, $1.5 billion for agencies and programs from license fees and similar revenues, nearly $1.2 billion from fuel taxes and other sources reserved for road needs, and $408 million from lottery proceeds. Surplus-supplied funding totals $50 million.

The lottery portion of the budget will provide $2.5 million to more than 400 cultural events and programs around the state. These include county fairs, local festivals, reunions, Fourth of July celebrations, theaters and museums. Ohio County would receive the largest share of that funding, more than $234,600.