legislators advocate simplifying the budget

As the Legislature gears up for a special session to balance the state budget, raising the sales tax, lowering the personal income tax, raising the corporate net income tax, tiering severance taxes and raising fuel taxes, there’s another point of view emerging.

Call it Team Simplicity.

These are lawmakers who are coming to believe that given the time available and the divergent points of view, the to-do list is too much.

These legislators would like to narrow their focus to fixing the state budget before the new fiscal year begins July 1.

That means battles over agenda items like tax reform or highways funding would need to be fought another day.

Eric Nelson

Eric Nelson

“We have a structural imbalance and I think we’re not that far apart. Let’s keep it simple. We need to stay KISS principal,” House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson said in a telephone interview.

Significant progress actually has been made already on cutting into the projected budget shortfall of about a half-billion dollars.

The Legislature agreed to some measures like foregoing the governor’s Save Our State fund, smoothing out payments to the teacher’s retirement fund and redirecting workers comp debt funding back to the general fund.

Legislators also agreed to continue the 2 percent cuts to state agencies that started under then Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. Lawmakers are willing to forego a 2 percent average pay raise to teachers, although the governor might not be. There is also a general consensus to end a transfer from general revenue to Highways.

With all that said there is still a budget gap of $200 thousand. That is much closer to zero than the original half billion that was originally estimated.

Resolving the gap would be even more achievable if revenue estimates start looking up, as some Capitol chatter indicates.

Jim Justice

Jim Justice

Gov. Jim Justice, who announced plans to call lawmakers back to Charleston this Thursday, wants a balanced budget but also funding for a major state infrastructure package, plus funding for a teacher pay raise. Republican leaders in the state Senate want cuts to the state income tax.

“I think we’re on a pathway to pass a budget that is special,” Justice said during the announcement of the special session.

Justice went on to say, “I don’t see how in the world any legislator can walk away from this opportunity. The vote needs to be 34-0 and 100-0 and signed by me. This is the opportunity of a lifetime in the most dire situation.”

Easier said than done, according to Nelson.

“The more difficult things are, the less chance of getting a vote,” said Nelson, R-Kanawha.

“Before we can do the budget we’ve got to pass certain bills. All we’ve heard is having one bill that has all these components to it. I’m quite concerned that doesn’t have a chance in the House,” Nelson said.

“If he’s talking about gas taxes, there’s a core group that will be completely against that.”

Mike Hall

Mike Hall

His counterpart in the Senate, Finance Chairman Mike Hall, is also advocating for a solution to the budget problem now, buying time to reach and agreement on the other issues down the road.

“I’d like to take a step back and say what is it we’re trying to protect here?” Hall said. “What are people’s underlying philosophies about government and funding of government. What are we doing?”

Hall continued, “Maybe the simplest solution is raise the revenue for one year and spend the next year starting talking seriously about the level of government we want to fund.”

Hall points out that Governor Justice is only a few months into his job with agency heads who are also skilled but new to their roles.

“I think he needs a year to sort of get in his mind exactly what we ought to do about certain things, rather than react. We could spend a year with him getting his sea legs under him,” Hall, R-Putnam, said in a telephone interview.

Hall said in regards of the governor, “He has three whiteboards worth of things he doesn’t want to have cut. How does he know? He’s been there for one or two months.

“We have a new governor and new legislators trying to solve problems that are very old,” says Hall.

“We have to decide where we think people are and where we need to be. Let these new leaders come to own it. I don’t think 60 days for a lot of these new people was enough time, particularly with everything else.”

Roman Prezioso

Roman Prezioso

Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso said the particulars of the budget package to be under consideration this week could prove to be its undoing. For example, leaders in the coal industry and the Justice administration were still trying to work out an agreement on severance tax rates in the budget deal.

In some cases, as Prezioso described it, individual lawmakers have looked at the overview of the budget package and found it acceptable. But as lawmakers have looked more closely at specific aspects of the deal, they’ve found cause to object.

“The longer you drag this out, the more the people have the opportunity to look at the issues, the more they have the tendency to say ‘Whoa, I can’t support this.’

Prezioso also noted the governor’s enthusiasm sells the big picture of the proposal, but then lawmakers hear from constituents expressing concerns about one aspect or another.

“He fires you up, but then when we walk out we hear from constituent groups saying, ‘Hey we’d better slow this thing down.’ The longer it goes the harder it’s going to get,” said Prezioso, D-Marion.

One the other hand, he cautioned, it could be short-sighted to abandon this moment that could provide a long-term fix to the budget or to boost the state’s economy.

Do you piecemeal it together? Are you just trying to get a budget so you kick the can down the road and come back next year? You’ll be in an election year which further complicates things. If you’re going to fix it, it seems like this would be the year when it’s a nonelection year.

“The governor’s saying ‘Look, we’ve got to take bold steps now to try to fix the big picture’ instead of saying ‘Here we go again.’”

Justice said the budget package that will be under consideration this week will include “modest additional cuts” but will largely avoid the cuts present in an earlier budget passed by the Legislature.

“If we can pull that off, just think about it. We’ll be able to do that without cutting into higher ed, without cuts to DHHR, without cutting into K-12,” Justice said.

“How good could that possibly be? If you could vote no to this, what are you voting yes to?”

Tim Armstead

Tim Armstead

Appearing last week on “Talkline,” House Speaker Tim Armstead said he believes the budget package is starting to come apart under its own weight.

“You put this many things together, people think this brings people on board,” said Armstead. I think they’re losing people on this plan because as they begin to learn the impact of the severance tax on coal jobs in our state there are a number of people concerned about that.

“The 7 percent sales tax and the CAT tax, people are beginning to have concerns about it. In the Democratic party, I think they’re having concerns about what the income tax would mean as it impacts certain wage earners.”

“I can’t say whether they have lost support for it, but there are a number of people expressing concerns about some aspects of it. As the discussions have gone along, I don’t think they have built support. I think they’ve lost support.” says Armstead.

 

House Majority Leader Daryl Cowles suggested last week that a simpler path might be a more

Daryl Cowles

Daryl Cowles

effective path. 

“Since that’s our problem why don’t we simplify things and try to solve that. Let’s set aside tax reform, let’s set aside new programs and try to solve the budget gap,” Cowles, “That’s simplifying the issue before us.”

 

Delegate Eric Householder, the vice-chairman of the Finance Committee, is in favor of continued talks about changing the state tax code.

“They are two separate issues. I think we can work on both of them at the same time but they do have to be separated,” said Householder.

 

“There are many serious-minded legislators who have an interest in fixing this long-term budget imbalance,” Householder said. “Most of us believe that no matter what we choose to do, we’re

Eric Householder

Eric Householder

going to make decisions that will be unpopular with somebody somewhere.”

Consensus also has not been easy to reach on cuts.

Some specific cuts proposed by legislators during the session died along the way. A bill to eliminate film office tax credits died on the House floor. A bill to do away with the racetrack modernization fund passed the House but died in the Senate. A bill to eliminate the state’s role in greyhound racing was vetoed by the governor.

Some of the governor’s initial proposals for cuts were reversed. The governor initially proposed cutting the Educational Broadcasting Authority but a few weeks later changed his mind. Proposed cuts to the Division of Culture and History also were reversed.

“We need a list of specific assurances from him for cutting and controlling expenditures in the budget,” Householder said. “It’s up to us to get the governor on board and I don’t know if we’ll be able to do that.”

“Now more than ever is when we need a true leader to step up and lead,” Nelson said. “A true leader would bring everybody to the negotiating table right there and hammer out the important aspects we need to get done and agree to and move forward before we waste a lot of precious time and  money calling us in without a done deal.”

Fenton Art Glass workers say final goodbyes to Williamstown factory

Close to 200 former employees of Fenton Art Glass Co. gathered one last time at the century-old family business to talk together, tour the factory and remember the work they did there and the people they worked with.

Company president George Fenton said 193 employees signed up at Saturday’s event at the Fenton Gift Shop and factory facility in Williamstown. Many of which also brought spouses and family members to see their former workplace.

Cake and punch were being served in one of the rooms above the gift shop, while groups of employees and family members toured the idled factory area and other locations in the sprawling building.

The plant and surrounding property are in the process of being bought by Wood County Schools to serve as the location for the Williamstown-Waverly Elementary School, which is expected to open in 2020.

“We invited any employee from the glass factory and the gift shop,” Fenton said. “We heard they wanted to see the site and the plant before the demolition.”

Fenton doesn’t have a definite timeline for the property’s transfer and said the company is still working with the final contract with the school district. Auctions for a large variety of items ranging from office equipment to tools to other things from the plant are scheduled for May 6, May 20 and June 3.

“We will be ready after those things are removed for demolition to start. Whether it begins right then in the middle of June or it gets delayed for a little bit is something we’re still working out with the demolition contractor,” Fenton said.

Fenton Glass was founded in 1905 and employed 725 local residents at its peak as pressers, blowers, finishers, glass mixers, melters, in mold maintenance, as inspectors, decorators and finishers, in shipping, customer service, sales and product development. The company saw a rapid decline in sales beginning in 2000, and in 2011 the plant closed.

The Fenton Gift Shop, which has continued to operate Wednesdays through Saturdays since that time, is looking at the possibility of moving to a new location once the demolition work on the facility begins, he said.

Fenton said the Fenton Art Glass Co. is no longer active.

“We’re in the wind-down situation so I would expect we’ve got some business things we’ve got to clean up and once that’s done it will probably be finished,” he said.

Don Theobald, of Williamstown, worked for 33 years at Fenton, primarily in the finishing department. He was involved helping process the glass, through sand-blasting and a variety of other methods.

He began when he was 22 years old in 1974 and worked through November 2007 when work began to go shut down the factory.

“I enjoyed the people. The work was OK, but I really enjoyed the people. I had a lot of friends here over the years,” he said.

Theobald said that was what he liked most about Saturday’s event, the chance to meet and talk with many former co-workers and friends. The Fenton company has always been a big part of the Williamstown community, he said.

Charles “Chuck” Camden, of Williamstown, started in 1993 and said he worked in nearly every department in the plant through his departure in 2009. He is still active with the company, serving as the groundskeeper for the property.

“It wasn’t bad, it was pretty cool,” he said of the years he spent working at the glass factory.

Camden said there were a lot of memories while touring the factory floor on Saturday morning. A lot of his family also had connections with the plant over the years and he was glad to see so many people turn out for the final reunion visit.

“It was nice to at least have a farewell,” he said of the event.

Camden said he was also glad to see that the site will serve as a new home for the community’s elementary school students.

“It’s nice to see that it’s not just going to be an empty building forever,” he said.

Nancy Bobbitt, of Williamstown, began working in the late 1990s, beginning in quality control before becoming assistant to the president and QVC coordinator.

“I think it’s great,” she said of Saturday’s reunion. I think it’s a good thing for employees to get back and to look at it one last time, to be able to see people they worked with for ages and grew very close to as a family,”

STATE SENATOR MARK MAYNARD HELPS PASS OFF-ROAD BILL

Typically, when off-road enthusiasts hear the word “government” or “politician,” the first word that comes to mind is “regulation,” or some form of restriction on recreational activities, whether that’s in the form of closure of state or federal land or requirements for emissions-control equipment, permits, lighting, safety equipment, and so forth. For once, one of the politicians is a hard-core enthusiast with gasoline running through his veins and dirt and grease under his fingernails. Meet West Virginia State Senator Mark R. Maynard, a representative for West Virginia’s District 6, bordering Kentucky and Virginia.

Senator Maynard personally reached out to us and wanted to share his latest accomplishment: sponsoring a bill digitizing maps of the state and designating roads and trails that are off-road–vehicle friendly. The bill, West Virginia Senate Bill 691, also broadens the definition of all-terrain and utility terrain vehicle to include Jeeps, SUVs, and pickups. The broad definition is “three or more low-pressure (less than 20 psi) tires.”

West Virginia’s off-road trail system is administered by the Hatfield-McCoy Regional Trail Authority. Yep, named after those Hatfields and McCoys. The stated purpose of the authority is to “develop a world-class trail system with an emphasis on safety.” The trail systems are open 365 days a year, and many of the attractions and destinations on the trail system are only accessible via off-road vehicle.

If you don’t believe the senator’s gearhead bona fides, you can check out his biography yourself on his Senate page, which includes the presidency of the Eastcoast Streetcar Association; NHRA crewmember; membership in SEMA, the National Muscle Car Association (NMCA), and Tread Lightly; and founding member of the Appalachian Ridge Runners Off Road Club. Still not convinced? His daughter’s middle name is “Chevelle.” We’re glad that “one of us” is looking out for our rights in the statehouse, at least in West Virginia.

Homes for Roane Flood Victims

Photo by WSAZ

AMMA, W.Va. — Three newly constructed, fully furnished houses were dedicated Friday afternoon in Roane County for three families that lost their homes in last June’s flood.

The Roane County Long Term Recovery Group with the West Virginia Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster came together with more than a dozen other organizations to build the homes.

The houses were dedicated along Pigeon Road in Amma. They are going to a single man who has been living with his brother, a young single mother with two children and an elderly mother and daughter with disabilities.

Friday’s dedication was the result of a total team effort, Roane County Long Term Recovery Group chairman Joe Ross said.

“I am so grateful that we were able to help all of the families rebuild after experiencing such a tremendous loss,” Ross said.

Ross said the flood victims have a fresh start.

“We’re turning these homes over to these folks and they owe absolutely nothing on these homes. They are their homes,” Ross said.

New WV laws to extend Internet access

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Newly signed laws in West Virginia are intended to extend broadband internet service to parts of the state currently lacking it, and help communities prepare for major flooding.

The broadband measure says it’s a primary goal of the Legislature and governor to make every community and rural area accessible and establish equitable access to 21st-century technology.

It establishes a council to gather data on existing service, including internet speeds, and annually map them.

It also establishes an insurance fund to support expansion projects and authorizes pilot projects by municipalities and cooperatives to reach underserved areas.

For flood protection, a new state resiliency office will receive funds, coordinate efforts and update plans annually against floods like those last June that killed 23 people and damaged hundreds of homes, businesses, and infrastructure.

West Virginia Online Public Schooling?

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) – West Virginia has authorized its county school boards to offer virtual school, where students in kindergarten through high school can learn online.

Under the law approved by the Legislature and Gov. Jim Justice, a county board or a multicounty consortium can create a virtual instruction program and contract with online education providers starting July 1.

Elementary school students from kindergarten through fifth grade won’t be allowed until the program has operated for one full school year.

The law requires counting eligible students in the school district’s enrollment for determining state aid and subjecting them to the same state assessment requirements as other students to receive a diploma.

It allows them to participate in school sports and other extracurricular activities as well as “blended programs” with both classroom and online learning.

Full bill text.

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