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Statehouse beat: Budget is the big issue

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- With the 2014 legislative session starting on the earliest date possible -- Jan. 8 -- there's little time for transition from the holidays to the 60-day grind. (Unlike last year, when the staggered session started on the next-to latest day possible, Feb. 13.)

Looking ahead to the 2014 legislative session, the state budget is shaping up as the biggest issue.

Like many households, state finances have been flat for the past couple of years while expenses have been increasing annually.

As Revenue Secretary Bob Kiss noted last week, when he left the House of Delegates in 2007, the long-term budget forecasts were already predicting tough times in the "out" years -- and now the out years have arrived.

This session, the Legislature will have to plug a budget gap of about $250 million to $300 million, about $75 million of which is self-inflicted through cuts in business taxes and elimination of the sales tax on groceries.

Back in the day, the Legislature could rely on state Lottery profits to plug budget holes, but state Lottery income for 2013-14 is on pace to come in at about $500 million, down some $140 million from the peak year of 2006-07 -- before competing casinos sprung up in Pennsylvania, then in Maryland and Ohio.

(As I write this item, the news out of Pennsylvania is that casino revenues there fell 3.5 percent in 2013, with state Gaming Control Board officials blaming increased competition from casinos in neighboring states.)

True, $250 million is not an insurmountable budget gap, given a general revenue budget of more than $4 billion, and total operating budget in the neighborhood of $18 billion -- but it does make it tough for constituents wanting new programs, and state employees and teachers looking for pay raises.

(FYI, when the teachers' unions start complaining that teachers haven't had a pay raise since 2011, remember, that's not exactly true. Teachers (and school service personnel) get incremental raises annually. It works out to about 1.5 percent a year, which obviously isn't great, but there are a lot of workers out there -- state employees included -- who would think 1.5 percent annually is better than a long string of no pay raises.)

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West Virginia has more roads than it can afford to maintain, and relies on an antiquated gas tax (enacted at a time when cars got 10 to 15 miles per gallon) to fund them.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin appointed a Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways to come up with new proposals for funding state roads, but was not enthusiastic about their primary recommendation: Selling $1 billion of road bonds, to be paid off by keeping tolls on the West Virginia Turnpike for another 30 years.

It will be interesting to see if Tomblin has an alternative proposal for funding state roads.

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Expect another showdown on legislation to make pseudoephedrine prescription-only in hopes of cracking down on the state's meth lab epidemic.

The whole issue puts Big Pharma in the untenable position of appearing to put profits ahead of public safety and welfare, somehow reminiscent of the cigarette industry in the 1960s and '70s.

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Another quirk of the calendar will create a comparatively short 13-day window for candidates to officially file for 2014 elections.

By law, the filing period opens on the second Monday in January, and closes on the last Saturday of the month, which means it can open as early as Jan. 8 or as late as Jan. 14. This year, the second Monday is on Jan. 13, creating the short time frame.

Secretary of State Natalie Tennant says that, historically, a majority of candidates file for office on the first or second day of the filing period.

You have to go back to 1992 to find any real last-night intrigue on candidate filings.

That was the year that then-Attorney General Mario Palumbo waited until after 9 p.m. to make a surprise announcement that he was running for governor, prompting a scramble with Darrell McGraw, Charleston lawyer Ed ReBrook, and then-Sen. Bill Wooton, D-Raleigh, filing in the suddenly open Democratic primary -- with Wooton (who subsequently withdrew his candidacy) arriving at the Secretary of State's offices less than 20 minutes before the midnight deadline.

Other than that, the most excitement on filing deadline day may have been in 2008, when Anne Barth resigned as an aide to Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., and filed that Saturday evening to run against Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., after the presumptive Democratic candidate, Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, backed out at the 11th hour.

What will be interesting to watch this filing period is how many pre-candidates -- at least 10 alone for the 2nd Congressional District seat Capito is vacating to run for Senate -- will have second thoughts when it comes time to actually put pen to paper, both to officially file as candidates, and to write checks for the filing fees.

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


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