The annual 60-day regular session of the West Virginia Legislature starts today. The legislative process typically has many twists and turns, as well as unexpected developments, but here are several things to watch out for.
Budget negotiations: The determination of how and where to allocate the state’s limited resources is annually one of the most important debates. Last year, lawmakers and Governor Justice fussed and feuded through the regular session and a 20-day long special session before finally hammering out a spending plan, although Justice never signed off and allowed it to become law without his signature. All involved want to avoid a repeat this year.
Pay raises: The state’s financial condition is a little better now than the last couple of years. Tax collections for the first five months of the fiscal year are $106 million ahead of the same period the previous year and almost exactly aligned with estimates. That will take some of the upfront pressure off of the budget process, but it also means the Governor and lawmakers will be hit with the pent up demand for pay raises and additional spending. Prison and jail correctional officers appear to be at the front of the line for raises.
Inventory tax: Legislative leaders and Governor Justice want to remove the property tax on business inventory, equipment and machinery. They view the tax as anti-business, but it brings in millions of dollars annually to county school systems and county governments. The plan will likely included a phase out of the tax over several years and a to-be-determined replacement revenue stream for the counties. Changing the law will require an amendment to the state Constitution.
Natural gas: Governor Justice and Legislative leaders have been meeting ahead of the session to try to reach agreement on several major issues impacting the natural gas industry. It should not be too hard to come to terms on a plan to allow drillers to proceed without the consent of 100 percent of mineral rights holders, but finding consensus on whether or not old mineral rights contracts need to be renegotiated for horizontal drilling will be much more difficult.
Supreme Court: Under the state Constitution, the Legislature has no control or even oversight of the Judiciary’s budget. However, lawmakers want to change that this session after revelations of exorbitant spending on luxury office furnishings by the state Supreme Court. The court may be able to fend off lawmakers with promises of more budget transparency, but it won’t be easy. Putting the Supreme Court’s budget under legislative control would require an amendment to the state Constitution.
Free community college: Senate President Mitch Carmichael is pushing hard for legislation that would provide free community and technical college education for qualifying students. There is growing interest in the importance of technical education to improve the state’s workforce, but Carmichael can expect pushback from those who believe the state cannot afford it.
State school board: House Speaker Tim Armstead and House Education Committee Chairman Paul Espinosa want to push for all or some of the nine members of the state school board to be elected. Currently, all are pointed by the Governor. Armstead and Espinosa believe having people vote on board members would improve accountability.
Wildcard: Nearly every year, an issue or bill unexpectedly gets legs and takes on a life of its own. Last year it was the bill legalizing medical marijuana. No one expected that bill to go anywhere, but it did after impassioned committee and floor speeches about how the state should not stand in the way of something that could provide relief for chronic pain sufferers. So watch out this session to see what pops out!
And finally, a reminder that MetroNews will provide live coverage beginning at 7pm of Governor Jim Justice’s State of the State address. You can hear the coverage on many of these MetroNews stations and watch the speech at wvmetronews.com.