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W.Va. lawmakers start budget talks close to deal

Lawrence Messina, Associated Press

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- Disagreements over funding for state Department of Education staff and in-home care for seniors on Medicaid, among other areas, await compromise this week as the West Virginia Legislature works on a new state budget.

The Senate and House of Delegates passed dueling versions of an $11.4 billion spending plan just before their regular session ended Saturday. Each reflects relatively minor changes to what Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin proposed. The Democrat submitted a budget bill when the session began in mid-February and then revised it earlier this month, partly because counties provided more in property tax revenues for public schools than estimated.

During the week's extended session, a House-Senate committee will focus largely on a $4.1 billion portion of the budget supported by general tax revenues. The House and Senate are less than $2 million apart on this spending, with delegates proposing $5 million less than the governor and senators proposing $3.7 million less.

The governor's general revenue budget was already smaller than what passed the Legislature last year. Exempting such areas as direct classroom spending, Tomblin ordered 7.5 percent cuts for agencies under his part of the executive branch. That saved around $75 million. The Supreme Court, which has independent budget authority, agreed to reduce its spending by $4 million.

"When there's no money, there's not really a lot to fight over," said Senate Finance Chair Roman Prezioso, a Marion County Democrat. "Really, we're not that far off."

The House version cuts $850,000 from Department of Education personnel costs, following through on a mandate added to Tomblin's wide-ranging public schools legislation. A critical audit of West Virginia's education system found it unusually heavy with state-level staffers when compared to most other states. The governor's bill, signed last week, requires the department to trim personnel spending by 5 percent in each of the next two years.

The Senate did not include a personnel cut in its version but did add $37,600 for professional development. The House, meanwhile, cut $48,871 meant to cover paid rest leave for West Virginia's Teacher of the Year. The House Finance Committee learned that the winners haven't taken up the sabbatical offer for a number of years.

As recommended by the governor in his April 2 follow-up, the House included $2.1 million so each classroom teacher would have an additional $100 to spend. Teachers currently get $200, but must routinely hand over half to faculty senates for school-wide needs, lawmakers were told. The Senate's budget has no money for classroom supplies. Delegates, meanwhile, also proposed $240,000 in one-time spending so Hampshire High School can build an animal science facility.

The two chambers also differ over $1.7 million that the House added for counties that fuel their school buses with biodiesel. Another successful measure from Tomblin's agenda refocuses bus fuel incentives on West Virginia's ample natural gas supply.

Lawmakers must reconcile mortgage funding for primary care centers, which the Senate increased by nearly $212,000 and the House by $78,000. Each proposed hike would blunt the 7.5 percent cut ordered by Tomblin.

The Senate similarly sought to ease cuts to domestic violence and anti-sexual assault programs by a total of $193,000, while the House added more than twice that to restore them completely to current levels. Responding to another 7.5 percent cut, each version increased funding for a Charleston-based poison control hotline that West Virginia University had previously provided through its budget. Delegates also added $140,190 for independent living aid provided by the Division of Rehabilitative Services.

The governor's initial budget proposal mistakenly left out $380,000 for the Division of Forestry, needed for its tree nursery, amid an internal debate over whether to discontinue that program. Fixing another omission, the House cut personnel costs at the Division of Culture and History by just over $262,000 to satisfy the 7.5 percent order.

In the recurring battle over programs that seek waivers from federal officials so Medicaid patients can stay out of nursing homes and other institutions, the House budgeted $14 million for in-home senior care. Tomblin and the Senate's version proposed $11.9 million.


Follow Lawrence Messina at https://twitter.com/lmessina