Members of the House will have to agree to a plan that closes the 2016 budget gap. On Wednesday, the chamber’s floor session largely focused on what that plan may look like for both the 2016 and 2017 fiscal years.
Governor Tomblin’s budget officials say the state will end the fiscal year in June with a nearly $400 million budget gap. Wednesday members of the House voted on three bills to help agencies like the Department of Health and Human Resources and the Public Defenders Service fund their programs through the end of the budget year.
Lawmakers passed all three supplementals without any opposition, but that hasn’t always been the case on the House floor this year. The budget has caused more than a few debates between members.
Delegates in the Democratic Party have specifically criticized the majority for ignoring the need for additional funding for the public employee’s health insurance program.
Wednesday, House Speaker Tim Armstead asked the members to understand that leadership is working to fix PEIA, and that the funding for the program is contained within the 2017 budget bill, just as it always has been.
“Let’s quit the game playing," Armstead said, "Let’s quit trying to take every bill that comes through here whether it actually would or not fund anything, and try to throw some amendment on and try to say there’s no plan. This is a plan that needs to be developed as part of our overall budget, because this budget is what will fund PEIA, and make sure that our citizens do not have draconian cuts that none of us, Republican or Democrat, want to see occur.”
Minority Leader Tim Miley questioned Armstead’s remarks and brought up the tobacco tax bill passed in the Senate on Tuesday. The bill would increase the state's cigarette tax by a dollar and also includes increases in tax rates for other tobacco products, including snuff and vaporized nicotine.
“We got a bill from the Senate that I think goes a long way if not completely fixes the PEIA problem," Miley said, "but also, most importantly in my opinion, has a positive impact on the health of West Virginians. 25 senators, bi-partisan vote, supported that. Senate President didn’t. How committed is he to fixing PEIA. I hope the leadership of this House stands up, despite what the leadership of the Senate may have done, and says we are committed, and we’re gonna make those tough decisions, cause we have to make them too.”
The tobacco tax bill will soon land on Delegates' desks, but many Senators doubt it will be successful in that chamber.
House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson says that’s not the case.
“I expect to have that up and debating on this very soon, and it’s too early to say when that is," Nelson explained, "Obviously their bill is at a dollar, which increased it from the governor’s 45 cents. The projected revenue exceeds $100 million dollars, and we’ll have to have the appropriate debate on that.”
The tobacco tax will start in Nelson’s Finance Committee.