West Virginia lawmakers return to brighter outlook
By MICHAEL VIRTANEN
Dec. 28, 2017
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) — With a recent improvement in West Virginia's economy, state lawmakers will return to the Capitol in January with fewer budget troubles and hard choices than the last time.
And with a recently-minted GOP governor, Charleston, like Washington, will be in full Republican control.
Gov. Jim Justice switched parties in August after getting elected as a Democrat in 2016. Within two weeks, he installed Republican Senate Finance Committee Chairman Mike Hall as his new chief of staff and made other similar personnel changes.
"The governor has surrounded himself now with people that feel philosophically the same way ... and he believes those things," Senate President Mitch Carmichael said. "So there's a philosophical alignment toward pro-growth, pro-jobs, pro-coal, pro-natural resources in this Legislature and in the governor's office whereas before it may not have been the case."
Carmichael, who leads the Senate's Republican majority, predicts that with higher tax collections from an improving economy, the budget will be passed before the two-month legislative session ends in mid-March. This year it continued for several extra weeks with Justice opposing steeper spending cuts in state funding for health care and higher education that were initially backed by the Legislature. The session starts Jan. 10.
Justice, whose family owns coal mines, resorts and farms, says West Virginia's economic turnaround has started, citing major road projects that he, lawmakers and voters backed, some recent corporate expansions in the state and plans by Chinese investors to spend almost $84 billion in natural gas, chemical production and other ventures in the state over 20 years.
West Virginia tax collections were 4.5 percent higher through the first five months of the current fiscal year than last year with the $1.6 billion almost matching budget projections. They included a 33 percent increase in severance taxes for natural gas, coal and oil, whose prices have rebounded from slumps a year earlier. The fiscal year began in July.
Natural gas is on the Legislature's agenda.
Carmichael expects lawmakers to consider "co-tenancy," which would authorize drilling when most owners of a land parcel want to allow it. Another likely topic is "lease integration," which addresses drilling underneath instead of on top of someone's land, he said.
Also expected are proposals to cut the state's business inventory tax, possible tax incentives for downstream industrial use of the state's natural gas and possible tiered taxes on coal production that would rise and fall with prices.
They are committed to increasing pay for correctional officers in West Virginia's understaffed jails and prisons, Carmichael said. A legislative proposal for free community and technical college, with federal funding applied, would cost the state about $1,000 a student or less than $10 million, he said.
"It would absolutely bootstrap, sort of lift West Virginia to a higher level, in terms of our educational attainment and retraining capabilities," Carmichael said. "I think it also does a lot to address the drug and opioid use because people have a pathway to a career. If you want to go back get retraining, recertification in certain skill sets, we'll help you do that."
Training would include fields like nursing, medical technology, welding, heating and cooling and electrical technology for residents who can pass a drug test, he said. "We hear from employers all the time that they just can't find people."