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Steve Novotney Says, "Gov. Justice and His First Session"

It's got a ring to it.

"Governor Justice."

He became the state's 36th governor this week, and now he will have less than a month to develop his plan to fill that ginormous, $450 million operations deficit facing the members of the West Virginia Legislature.

Last year, the lawmaker plugged a $270 budget hole by raising – again – the cigarette tax and by swiping nearly $200 million from the state's shrinking Rainy Day Fund. The solution resulted in a decrease in West Virginia's credit rating but no solution for this year's regular session.

There have been quotes from media sources from throughout the state about cuts, revenue issues versus spending, and more pledges by some conservative lawmakers never to vote for an increase in taxes, but not even the two delegates that represent the Third House District in Ohio County know now what to expect of Speaker Tim Armstead's session agenda. Both delegates have attended interim session each month since April and that's when bill proposals are heard and procured.

Most sessions, though, possess surprises, and no one seems to know if some of the controversial legislation introduced last year will return again. Many people were reminded on Monday that it was the country's Republican lawmakers that pushed the passage of the Civil Rights of 1964, not the Democratic Party, but the issue has switch hands during those 50-plus years. In West Virginia, for example, the GOP majority in the House of Delegates pushed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act last session, and it is a bill that, if passed this year, would erase the non-discrimination ordinance approved in by Wheeling Council in mid-December 2016 and previously in 10 other cities in the Mountain State.

A forced pooling bill that included surface development was sponsored and introduced, as were bills involving abortion, organized labor, and budget cuts. Unfortunately, though, nothing that could address population loss or a diversified economy saw the light of day.

So what to expect in three weeks when the 2017 Regular Session begins?

Budget Cuts

Low-hanging fruit, that's how the easy cuts are described when lawmakers are looking for a budget's political fat, but that might not be a good thing for the city of Wheeling and its annual festival season. One item that's been mentioned the past couple of years when cuts are the conversation is the state funding allotted to most of the Heritage Port events, and if those funds go away, it's hard to tell what the impact might be.

Last winter legislative members also considered repealing the clause in video lottery laws pertaining to a live racing mandate, and many members of the House wanted to erase a tax that assists the greyhound racing industry that only is contributed to by those who frequent the state's four racetracks.

Social Issues

Along with the Religious Restoration Act, across-the-board budget cuts have not only been enacted by lawmakers but also put into place by former Gov. Earl Tomblin, and that means every department from health and human resources to the Office of the Attorney General have been forced to decrease staff and programs.

While fiscal responsibility should be the state legislators' top priority, it will be most difficult to make responsible cuts without independent audits in hand. To date the only examination that has taken place concerned the Division of Highways nearly a year ago but the details have yet to be released to the general public.

Good Bills from the Minority

One issue lawmakers have had for decades has concerned the agenda and the fact it all depends which party holds the majority as far as proposed bills getting any attention from leadership. A prime example is Del. Shawn Fluharty's (D-3rd) "Stay in the State Act," a bill that would help retain college graduates if they find in-state employment following commencement.

The legislation, introduced last year, suggests offering employers tax credits after assisting these employees with satisfying the worker's student loans, but was not given a chance in spite of receiving bi-partisan sponsorship from the get-go. It will be offered again once the regular session begins and should be taken up in the spirit of retention.

Agenda for Party or People?

A plethora of campaign promises concerned the citizens of West Virginia throughout 2016, but how many will be kept is in question. Last year's regular session agenda, in my humble opinion, didn't focus on the needs of the state's residents but instead on a course set forth by the American Legislative Exchange Council.

So now the big questions are:

What can Governor Justice do to get Democrats and Republicans working together to diversify the economy while improving the quality of life for today's West Virginia?

Will Governor Justice support medicinal marijuana as part of the solution to properly addressing the state's issues with opioid addiction and daily overdoses?

And what can he accomplish to help ease the "brain drain" so the state can begin reversing the mindset that one must leave for opportunity?

Tough decisions will need to be made by the Legislature's 134 members and West Virginia's new chief executive officer this regular session, and discovering ways to create new revenue represents a far better solution than irrational budget slashing.

(Photo by Chuck Klein)

Categories: Commentary