March 17, 2017
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Leadership of the House of Delegates this past week unveiled its framework for the Fiscal Year 2018 budget, while also advancing legislation to expand and enhance high-speed internet access across the state.
On Monday, members of the House gathered with their counterparts in the Senate to discuss their approach to balance the state’s budget by controlling government spending and avoiding massive tax increases on struggling West Virginians.
“We fully intend to pass a balanced budget that controls spending while facing the reality that our state government needs to live within its means,” said House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha.
Gov. Jim Justice’s administration has projected that, under its the current tax structure, the state will collect $4.05 billion for the General Revenue Fund in the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1. Yet the Governor has proposed a budget that would spend $4.5 billion – spending mainly backed by the largest tax increase in state history.
Rather than basing a budget around what government wants to spend, Speaker Armstead and House leaders believe the budget should be based on what government expects to collect from its people – without massive tax increases. The budget framework lawmakers introduced this is designed with this approach in mind.
“The ‘War on Coal’ over the past eight years has severely damaged our economy, cost thousands of jobs and slashed incomes for working families across the state,” Speaker Armstead said. “Our budget must reflect these challenges, not exacerbate them.”
To balance the budget at the initial $4.05 billion revenue estimate, lawmakers proposed making several changes to Gov. Justice’s introduced budget bill (House Bill 2018), including the elimination of the Governor’s “Save Our State” fund, saving $105.5 million; the implementation of “smoothing” of returns in the Teachers’ Retirement System, saving $43.2 million; the elimination of greyhound subsidies, saving $15 million; and ending the casino modernization subsidy, saving $9 million.
The initial budgetary changes would close roughly $300 million of the $450 million spending-to-revenue gap from the Governor’s initial budget plan. The remaining $150 million gap will be closed using other options, including prioritizing spending in other areas of the budget.
Those gap-closing measures will be implemented throughout the course of the normal budget process in the House and Senate’s Finance committees over the next few weeks.
“These actions will be difficult, but we owe it to our citizens to do everything we can to make their government run more efficiently without constantly asking for more money from taxpayers,” Speaker Armstead said. “Our citizens have asked us to make tough choices to get government growth under control, and this budget will do just that.”
Meanwhile, on Thursday members of the House Judiciary Committee began advancing comprehensive legislation to expand and enhance broadband internet service and competition across the state, as well as end deceptive marketing practices regarding internet speeds.
The Judiciary Committee conducted a public presentation Thursday to discuss details of House Bill 3093, Establishing Broadband Enhancement and Expansion Policies.
The bipartisan legislation is sponsored by Judiciary Committee Vice-Chairman Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, and co-sponsored by Committee Chairman John Shott, R-Mercer, and Delegates Moore Capito, R-Kanawha; Andrew Byrd, D-Kanawha; Andrew Robinson, D-Kanawha; Amy Summers, R-Taylor; Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio; Charlotte Lane, R-Kanawha; Mark Zatezalo, R-Hancock: Nancy Foster, R-Putnam; and Cindy Frich, R-Monongalia.
The bill will reform and expand the duties of the state Broadband Enhancement Council, and promote practices that improve broadband access in the state. That includes allowing for the establishment of cooperative associations to help residents and businesses obtain internet services, and establishing new policies and protocols for microtrenching and make-ready pole access – both of which are important for expanding broadband infrastructure.
Additionally, the bill would also outlaw the use of “up to” maximum speed marketing of broadband speeds, instead requiring that providers advertise the minimum speeds for their service.
Delegate Hanshaw said the bill, which is revenue-neutral, is a good way to promote competition in the state without the use of government subsidies – something that would be difficult given the state’s current budget struggles.
“We have other bills here in both the House and Senate that are not revenue-neutral bills that were on the table for consideration,” Delegate Hanshaw told MetroNews. “But with the clock ticking on us, it became clear that we probably ought to be looking at options to advance service that didn’t even have the possibility of a financial impact. This bill does not.”
Many consumer advocates have offered their support for the legislation.
“This is superb,” Ron Pearson, a retired federal bankruptcy judge and broadband expansion advocate, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “We’ve got to have competition in providing internet and other services that travel over fiber to households and businesses or we’re going to be stuck in the dark ages of competition in West Virginia.”
The Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on the bill Friday morning before approving it during a committee meeting later in the day. The bill now goes to the full House for consideration, where a vote will likely take place Thursday.