Senators voted 20-14 Wednesday, approving their Senate plan for the 2018 fiscal year.
The bill, which contains no new revenue or a draw down from the State's Rainy Day Fund according to Senate Finance Chair Mike Hall, relies on about $160 million in cuts to government spending.
Hall explained to his chamber Wednesday that the bill takes into account the additional $43 million the state will save from smoothing payments to the teachers retirement system—a process that allows for a smaller payment next year in return for larger payments in the following two.
The bill relies on a Senate Bill yet to be approved by the House that cuts public school spending by almost $80 million, replacing the revenue by increasing property taxes at the local level.
It maintains the 2 percent across the board cuts to many state agencies implemented by former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin in November, but also cuts the Department of Health and Human Resources by almost 4 percent, higher education by $41.5 million, and zeros out some state agencies and programs, including West Virginia Public Broadcasting.
"I’ve been here a long time and I’ve never seen a budget so cruel,” Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso said on the floor Wednesday. The former finance chair says the Senate’s budget proposal hurts some of the state’s most vulnerable populations: children, seniors, and the disabled.
The cuts to the DHHR were criticized by several Democratic members of the body because most of those dollars are matched by the federal government.
The Senate budget reduces programs like the home health care reimbursements for seniors and disabled West Virginians, zeroes out the tobacco cessation program, and will result in the loss of more than $100 million in federal funding, according to Prezioso.
“There’s nothing that stabilizes our budget or protects our bond rating," Democratic Sen. Ron Stollings said during a floor speech. "This does not grow or diversify the economy or fix our roads and this budget accelerates the growth of future healthcare costs.”
Hall said he understands the cuts are difficult, but the bill is the start of the budget negotiating process.
"These are not things that I personally want to see happen, but at this point, it’s just a matter of the constraint of the numbers," Hall said. "I just heard you all describe a myriad of cuts that are painful. I don’t disagree with that at all and pretty Draconian, I don’t disagree with that. That’s why I said this is not the final destination and I know it’s not a pretty picture to make it the Senate budget.”
Other Republican members of the chamber argued that the budget does exactly what the people of West Virginia want- forces the state to live within its means.
“This budget does impose some burdens, either way we do it, right? Whether we raise taxes or try to live within our means," Senate President Mitch Carmichael said in a floor speech Wednesday.
"We could make the argument that we could spend more. We could continue to spend more and it would alleviate the pain and suffering of more people. Where do we stop as a society? We have to control the spending.”
The Senate approved its budget on a 20 to 14 vote with two Republicans, Senators Mike Maroney and Jeff Mullins, joining Democrats to oppose it.
The bill, which is very different from the House’s approved version, will likely go to a conference committee.