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Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Lawmakers restore social services funding

by Phil Kabler, Staff writer

Legislators restored $1.06 million in funding cuts to several West Virginia family resources and social services programs Wednesday, as they wrapped up a three-day special session.

As the House of Delegates was considering a bill (SB2003) to put money into accounts that previously had received video lottery profits (SB2003), delegates reduced the amount going to the Racetrack Purse Fund by that $1.06 million amount, to $14.58 million. Delegates moved that money to the Family Resource Networks, domestic-violence prevention programs, Child Advocacy Networks, and domestic violence legal services.

In his budget bill, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin had reduced those accounts, along with most other state appropriations. When the Legislature passed a budget on March 14 that restored those accounts to their fiscal 2013-14 funding levels, Tomblin used the line-item veto to roll back the funding to the amounts he proposed.

Delegate Nancy Guthrie, D-Kanawha, said it was deeply upsetting that Tomblin had cut the funding by line-item veto.

“We didn’t seem to have our priorities right,” Guthrie said. “It’s not a whole lot of money, and if it keeps one kid out of prison, or one person out of domestic violence … then I think it’s worth every single dime.”

The bill, which appropriates $71 million to various accounts that had automatically received video lottery profits, passed the House 90-0.

Shortly afterward, the Senate passed the bill 30-1 and sent it to the governor, over objections from Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson.

Snyder argued that the legislation passed March 14, which moved the funds to accounts that have to be appropriated by the Legislature, does not permit additional reductions in the racetrack purse fund, which is used to pay owners of winning thoroughbred horses and greyhounds at the state’s four racetracks.

The legislation moved 10 percent of the purse fund revenue into an account that is appropriated by the Legislature, but Snyder argued that that account cannot be used for other purposes.

“I think that’s illegal,” he said. “That money is set by statute. We can’t appropriate money that is set by statute.”

Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, had told a rally of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition on Tuesday that the “cold but stark truth” was that the funding likely would not be restored in special session.

Kessler said Wednesday he is pleased with the House’s last-minute amendment.

“Fortunately, there were some creative ways to move some money around in the appropriations bill the House sent to us,” Kessler said.

He said the Governor’s Office, prior to the vote, said the amendment would be acceptable.

“We voted for it overwhelmingly the first time, and we were prepared to restore it again,” Kessler said of restoring the $1.06 million in social services funding.

Stephen Smith, who organized a vigil at the Capitol on Tuesday, described the legislative action Wednesday as especially good news.

“Kids and families made their voices heard, and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle listened,” Smith said. “We congratulate House and Senate leadership for finding a way to make this investment in our state’s future.”

Also Wednesday, lawmakers:

• Passed a bill changing the way the state’s Courtesy Patrol is funded (HB2004). Previously, the program to provide roadside assistance to travelers on West Virginia highways received $4.7 million a year from the tourism promotion fund. Under the legislation, the $4.7 million will go into an account to cover expenses of operating the patrol, with any unused funds going back to the Division of Tourism.

House Finance Chairman Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, noted that the tourism promotion fund peaked at $20 million in 2004 but, with declining video lottery profits, will receive only $6.2 million in the 2014-15 budget.

A 2009 law required the Tourism Commission to transfer $4.7 million a year from the fund to support the Courtesy Patrol, which in the upcoming budget year would leave only $1.5 million for tourism advertising matching grants.

“We have cut back our advertising budget way too far, and it’s starting to have a drastic effect on our tourism industry,” House Judiciary Chairman Tim Manchin, D-Marion, said in support of the bill.

• Passed a bill clarifying that legislation passed in the regular session increasing the state minimum wage to $8 an hour in 2015 and $8.75 in 2016 does not supersede federal law regarding maximum work hours or overtime pay (HB201).

There were concerns that the bill originally would have made large numbers of employees eligible for overtime pay, including municipal firefighters who are on duty for 24-hour shifts.

• Did not attempt to override Tomblin’s veto of a bill that would have banned abortions of fetuses after 20 weeks gestation.

However, House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, called on legislators to sign a petition calling for a special session on the abortion bill. Under the state constitution, the governor is obligated to call a special session if three-fifths of the members of each house (60 delegates, 21 senators) request it.

“There is no neutral ground. There is no way of avoiding this issue,” Armstead said. “By doing nothing, we’ve made the decision we’re okay with full-term abortions.”

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.

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