CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia has finished a lawmaking session defined by a Republican agenda that sometimes shrugged off the state’s Democratic governor, but lawmakers still could be months away from unlocking a budget stalemate fueled by downturns in coal and natural gas.
Lawmakers wrapped their 60-day election year session late Saturday.
Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, led the chamber as the GOP’s presumptive nominee for governor, while his counterpart, Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, is in a three-way contest for the Democratic gubernatorial nod in May. He’s running against Jim Justice and Booth Goodwin.
The most pressing task of the year still remains unresolved: the state has a $466 million budget gap, and the standoff continues over whether to raise taxes, make more painful cuts or tap reserves to bridge about $130 million worth of disagreement between the House and Senate.
Here is a look at some highlights from the session.
VETO NO MORE
Republicans have already made four laws without Democratic Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s blessing.
The GOP overrode Tomblin’s veto on four policy bills, which only took only simple majority votes.
Running for governor on a pro-business platform, Cole prioritized a right-to-work measure and the repeal of the state’s prevailing wage for public construction projects. Unions despised the proposals, and both bills passed on party lines with some House Republicans even opposing them. Republicans then moved quickly to overturn Tomblin’s vetoes.
Lawmakers also overrode Tomblin’s veto of a push to let people 21 and older carry hidden guns without permits or training. Law enforcement opposed the change for safety reasons, and Tomblin vetoed a similar bill last year as well.
The Legislature wrapped up its run of overrides on a bill that largely bans the safest second-trimester abortion method, called dilation and evacuation. Tomblin vetoed it due to concerns by doctors over patient safety, and worries that it could be deemed unconstitutional.
Some Democrats supported the abortion ban and concealed gun push.
A TAX DIVIDE
Lawmakers are heading right back to work for a budget session, but there is little hope they’ll accomplish much by the session’s conclusion Tuesday.
The House has stayed firm about not raising taxes to fill the budget gap, while the Senate depended on $115 million annually from tax increases on cigarettes, tobacco products and e-cigarettes. Senators also banked on eliminating greyhound racing subsidies for another $20 million.
Instead, the House looked to take $32 million from state reserves, make $17 million in extra cuts and sweep $72 million from agency accounts.
Tomblin says he will veto a budget taking more money from reserves. The bar is much higher for lawmakers to override the governor’s budget veto. Tomblin proposed a smaller tobacco tax hike and a tax on cellphone and landline use, which gained no traction.
Tomblin has said that he would call lawmakers back for budget work later this spring if they don’t make progress next week. Many lawmakers say putting off the budget work also will give them a better picture of how much tax revenues from coal and natural gas will end up lagging behind.
UBER IN, RELIGIOUS OBJECTIONS OUT
A variety of other legislation still awaits Tomblin’s signature to become law.
Among them: a bill letting companies like Uber and Lyft offer rides, and one letting counties hold voter referendums to start serving alcohol at restaurants and wineries on Sundays at 10 a.m., instead of the current 1 p.m.
Also headed to Tomblin is a pilot program to drug test some welfare recipients based on “reasonable suspicions.”
He’ll also be receiving a bill that would require voters to show an ID at the polls. Many of the options aren’t photo IDs, from utility bills to hunting licenses. And someone who knows the voter could vouch for them instead. There’s also an automatic voter registration component.
The session’s most dramatic downfall came in a religious objections bill, which opponents said could sanction discrimination by letting people fight laws in court because of deeply held religious beliefs.
After the House passed the bill, senators amended it to protect cities with nondiscrimination ordinances for gay and transgender people and to ensure vaccination policies aren’t compromised. The Senate then voted to spike the proposal, as proponents deemed it no longer protective of religious freedom and opponents still considered it a bad bill made slightly better.
The business community opposed the bill, pointing to Indiana, where a similar law might have cost $60 million from groups that opted against conventions in Indianapolis and cited the law as a reason.