March 25, 2017
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – With a key legislative deadline looming next week, members of the House of Delegates worked late hours this past week to process a large volume of bills, including legislation addressing the state’s budget situation, and bills to improve the state’s access to broadband and response to flooding.
After approving several bills to address the state’s budget gap, including a comprehensive tax reform proposal, members of the Finance Committee on Saturday began the formal review of their substitute for the Governor’s fiscal year 2018 budget bill.
As proposed by Gov. Jim Justice, the original version of the budget bill – House Bill 2018 – called for $4.5 billion in General Revenue Fund spending for the 2018 fiscal year, which begins July 1. That was despite the administration’s revenue estimates projecting collections of only $4.055 billion under the state’s current tax code – a roughly $450 million gap.
House leaders had already proposed roughly $300 million in changes to this original budget plan, leaving around $150 million to be closed through other measures that would be proposed by the Finance Committee. On Friday, the Finance Committee approved a bill (House Bill 2933) that would close that remaining gap through comprehensive consumer sales tax reform.
The proposal is based on the principle of “broadening the base and lowering the rate.”
House Bill 2933 would reduce the state’s consumer sales tax to 5 percent next year by eliminating some of the sales tax exemptions currently in code, such as those for telecommunications, legal and accounting services, and gym memberships. Additionally, it would repeal the current exemption for food, though it would only tax groceries at 3 percent – less than the overall consumer sales tax rate.
The sales tax exemption eliminations would take place Oct. 1 and boost revenue by $174 million, enough to close the remaining fiscal year 2018 budget gap. This approach would avoid $150 million in potential cuts to K-12 education, higher education, and services provided through the state Department of Health and Human Resources.
The committee’s overall budget proposal is contingent on passage of several bills that will be voted on early next week by the full House. The Finance Committee on Saturday began formal work reviewing their alterations to the Governor’s proposed budget plan, and could vote to move it to the full House early next week – which would be significantly earlier than typically happens in a regular legislative session.
Wednesday, March 29, marks the 50th day of the legislative session. Also known as “crossover day,” this is the last day for a bill to be passed out of the house of the Legislature in which it was introduced. (This rule does not apply to the budget or supplemental appropriations bills).
Because of this, committees worked late hours this past week to review and approve as many House bills as possible so they can be placed on the calendar and read three consecutive days next week, as required by the state Constitution.
In addition to committee work, lawmakers passed a slew of bills this past week, sending them to the state Senate.
Among those bills were HHouse Bill 2935, which would establish a State Flood Protection Planning Council and Joint Legislative Committee on Flooding and passed unanimously Saturday morning.
The council and committee created by this bill would work together to create a comprehensive and coordinated statewide flood protection planning program to save lives and reduce or mitigate flood damage. Creation of the council was one of many recommendations contained in a 2004 multi-agency taskforce report regarding statewide flood protection planning.
Following last June’s devastating floods, House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, and a bipartisan group of delegates from flood-affected counties – including Delegates Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay; George “Boogie” Ambler, R-Greenbrier; Jordan Hill, R-Nicholas; Brent Boggs, D-Braxton; and Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier – introduced the legislation to improve the state’s response to flooding.
“I am grateful today for the House of Delegates’ unanimous support for this legislation,” Speaker Armstead said Saturday. “Our state has had a tragic history with flooding, with the events of last June being one of the most severe incidents we have seen in our lifetimes. While we can’t prevent severe weather and flooding, we owe it to those who died and those whose lives were affected to do all we can to avoid future loss of life and destruction when these natural disasters occur.”
Meanwhile, on Friday, the House voted 97-2 to pass House Bill 3093, which expands and enhances broadband internet service and competition across the state, as well as ends deceptive marketing practices regarding internet speeds.
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.
“This bill is intended to promote competition, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s a bill intended to do so in places where no competition exists,” said lead sponsor Delegate Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay. “It’s applicable everywhere. It will allow people who don’t have service to get access to that service.”
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.
“This bill requires providers engaged in marketing activities to provide a minimum or guaranteed level of speed, rather than a theoretical maximum speed,” Delegate Hanshaw said.