Recession effects greet returning W.Va. lawmakers

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The first day of a legislative session is usually when lawmakers like to make big promises. This year, the promises will likely be a bit more modest.

“There were a lot of bills today,” Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin said Wednesday, referring to the more than 900 bills introduced so far by lawmakers. “A lot of plans for new spending, tax credits, things like that. I don’t see much of a chance for that.”

That’s because a tough budget outlook means lawmakers will be largely restricted in what they can do. Recession-weakened tax collections have lawmakers expecting a spending plan from Gov. Joe Manchin that cuts education by 4 percent and most other state programs by 5 percent.

“Obviously, this budget will be a big focal point of this session,” said House Finance Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo. “I think the governor has taken a safe approach.”

This year’s budget includes $3.7 billion backed by general tax revenues, and another $478 million supported by lottery proceeds. Overall spending tops $11.5 billion, and Manchin’s plan for the next fiscal year is not hugely different from the current spending plan.

“Generally, there’s a lot more that changes in a budget,” Budget Director Mike McKown said. “Because it’s a tight year, there aren’t a whole lot of changes, though.”

Manchin wants to draw about $68 million from the excess lottery surplus to help fill spending gaps. He’s also planning to use remaining federal stimulus funds to keep funding for local schools at its current level.

“We will have very little left of any federal stimulus dollars after this election cycle,” White said.

The main source of increases in spending this year is retirement plans. Manchin plans to commit more than $89 million to the teachers’ retirement system alone, which represents the bulk of about $145.3 million in new spending on retirement benefits.

One area where Manchin doesn’t plan to spend any money is the line item known as other post-employment benefits, or OPEB. The state has been wrangling with county school boards for months over how to address OPEB liability, which is roughly $7.8 billion.

State lawmakers have been working out a plan, while most school boards say they’re planning to sue if something doesn’t change. Tomblin said he expects Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, to announce a proposed remedy soon.

The 60-day legislative session may be relatively placid for other reasons. In a year when all 100 House of Delegates members and 17 of 34 senators face elections, lawmakers may not want to risk potentially damaging fights.

House Republicans have said they plan to bring up issues that didn’t get much traction last year, including a proposal to amend the state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman.

They also want to make an issue of the health care system overhaul being debated in Congress, by proposing a constitutional amendment guaranteeing West Virginians’ ability not to be forced to buy health insurance.

“National politics isn’t only for national politicians,” said Delegate Jonathan Miller, R-Berkeley. “It’s also for state legislators.”

Other possible sources of conflict include the 180-day calendar used by the state’s primary schools. Last year, Manchin suggested changes that would make it more flexible, allowing school to start earlier in the year and end later.

The Senate unanimously passed a version of that bill, but it died in the House, where opposition was marshaled by allies of education unions.

In the House on Wednesday, the Judiciary Committee delved immediately into session work. It set a Thursday meeting to take up a bill co-sponsored by Democratic leaders that would require public officials to disclose more about any outside jobs, employers and business interests. It would also extend disclosure to spouses.