Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

WEST VIRGINIA GOVERNMENT BUDGET IMPASSE ; House Kills Tobacco Tax

Newspaper article Charleston Gazette Mail

WEST VIRGINIA GOVERNMENT BUDGET IMPASSE ; House Kills Tobacco Tax

Article excerpt

Prospects for passage of a 2016-17 state budget suffered a major setback Tuesday, as the West Virginia House of Delegates rejected a bill to raise tobacco taxes to close about $76 million of a $270 million budget shortfall. As they did earlier this year in the regular legislative session, House Democrats who considered the tax a half-measure insufficient to either solve the budget crisis or deter smoking joined with a band of anti-tax Republicans to defeat the bill (SB 1005) on a 55-44 vote.

"I think the Democrats played political games, House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said after Tuesday's vote. "I think the people of West Virginia need to know that - and the people of West Virginia will hold them accountable.

But House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said Armstead's comments were inappropriate, particularly when 20 Republicans also voted against the legislation. The Republicans against the bill included Majority Whip John O'Neal, R-Raleigh, the House leader responsible for getting delegates to vote for the leadership's bills.

"I feel sorry for Tim [Armstead]. He's struggling to lead his caucus, Miley said. "My sympathy for him begins to wane, however, when he keeps playing the blame game.

Three Kanawha County Republicans - Patrick Lane, Chris Stansbury and Brad White - voted against the bill, as did O'Neal and fellow Republicans Azinger, Butler, Faircloth, Folk, Gearheart, Hill, Ihle, Kessinger, McGeehan, Moffatt, J. Nelson, Overington, R. Smith, Sobonya and Upson.

Of the 36 House Democrats, only Delegate Patsy Trecost, D- Harrison, voted for the bill.

The tobacco tax was the only one of three revenue measures proposed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to garner support from House and Senate leaders.

Asked about options following Tuesday's defeat, House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, said out of frustration, "Maybe I'll just resign.

With no new tax revenue, Nelson said the House budget plan will have to increase use of the state's Rainy Day emergency reserve funds from about $61 million in the House budget bill (HB 101) to about $135 million, similar to the proposed raid on the Rainy Day Fund in the Senate version of the budget (SB 1001).

"That's all we can do right now, and it's going to be vetoed, Nelson said.

In fact, as he made that assertion, Tomblin was holding a news conference where he said he would accept taking no more than a "few million out of the Rainy Day Fund.

During the extended, three-hour floor debate, Nelson and other House leaders portrayed the 45-cent-a-pack increase in the cigarette tax, with similar percentage increases in taxes on smokeless tobacco, cigars and other tobacco products, as the only viable compromise to come up with funding to help end the 73-day budget impasse.

"This bill's a critical component to balancing our fiscal '17 budget, Nelson said. …

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