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Statehouse Beat: State of the State underwhelms

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- I think we can all agree Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's fourth State of the State address was underwhelming. In fact, between the brutal cold to start the week, and the water contamination to close it, the speech would be hard-pressed to finish in the top five news stories of the week. 

When there was no buzz leading up to the speech about what would be in it, we assumed it was a case of Tomblin playing his cards close to his vest, but it turned out he really had no cards to play, with a tough budget year making it difficult to lay out any new initiatives for the state.

Otherwise, it was a pretty typical template for a midterm governor: More recitation of past accomplishments and introduction of guests in the audience than new initiatives.

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New House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, claimed his first victory with a rules change this session that will give the Rules Committee he chairs greater control in determining which bills reach the House floor.

The resolution, which allows the House to operate the whole session (instead of just the second half) with two calendars -- one active and one inactive, where bad or controversial bills can be parked -- passed on a partisan 53-45 vote (with two Republicans absent).

House Republicans were overly dramatic in decrying it as a way for the Democratic majority to quash debate and silence opposition.

It is, but the speaker always has that ability, since he appoints the committee chairpersons, and through them can control which bills advance through the committee process. This just gives him an additional tool to make sure unwanted bills don't get to the House floor.

Just for future reference, Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, assured me he will not keep the calendar rule if Republicans take control of the House in the 2014 elections, and he becomes speaker.

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Oddly, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey used possible misuse of the Department of Agriculture's Rural Rehabilitation Loan program as evidence of the need to audit state agencies. Of course, that possible mismanagement was uncovered by a legislative audit, one of at least 28 such reports conducted by the Legislative Auditor's office in 2013.

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Senate Finance Chairman Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, isn't sold on the governor's proposal to take nearly $84 million out of the state's Rainy Day emergency reserve funds to help pay for increasing Medicaid costs.

"My concern is once you get into that Rainy Day money, how far do you go?" said Prezioso, echoing concerns that if the fund is raided once, it will set a precedent for future legislatures to drain it for every new project that comes along.

Prezioso noted that, in order to balance past budgets, the administration emptied the Income Tax Refund Reserve Fund, taking it down from $45 million to zero (and if residents don't get their income tax refund checks until July or August this year, they'll know why), as well as the TRAFFIC account (which had been the Legislature's version of a Rainy Day fund), emptying that $55 million fund.

Now, Prezioso said he's apprehensive that the administration is coming for the state's last big nest egg. (Big on one level, at $918 million, but in perspective, only enough to keep state government running for barely 2 1/2 months, in the event no tax revenue was coming in.)

"It's incumbent on me in my position to exhaust all alternatives," he said.

While the administration's long-term budget forecast calls for an upturn in state revenues and budget surpluses beginning in 2017, Prezioso said he's not convinced, particularly since the budget estimates for last year and this year were off to the point that mid-year budget cuts were required.

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The state may have 99 budget problems this year, but funding pensions isn't one of them.

Tomblin's proposed budget reduces pension contributions by more than $20 million, as the state Investment Management Board enjoyed a very good year, with a 16 percent return on pension fund investments -- more than double the 7.5 percent return required to keep the funds balanced.

Overall, from June 30 to Nov. 30, IMB assets grew by $1.06 billion, from $14.58 billion to $16.64 billion. Bet you wish your 401(k) looked like that.

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Finally, I was glad to learn that I was not the only one who, in listening to the multiple references/allusions to gardening and governing in Tomblin's State of the State address, harkened back to the movie, "Being There."

That brilliant 1979 satire starred Peter Sellers as a simple gardener who had led an extremely sheltered life, who through improbable circumstances becomes the toast of the powers that be in Washington, who interpret his very literal statements about gardening to be wise allegorical insights about the state of the economy.

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

 


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