West Virginia budget talks costing $500,000

West Virginia lawmakers returned Monday to try again to agree on tax and budget bills for the 16th day of a special session that has cost the state about $500,000 so far.

The extra days each cost roughly $35,000. The law authorizes paying the 134 legislators each $150 daily, plus travel expenses, as well as per diems of $55 if they commute and $131 for overnight stays.

However, 37 were absent Monday, lowering expenses. Various per diem legislative staff hasn't been called back. Key legislators have kept negotiating on other days, while most lawmakers went home.

"We've had members not coming all the way down here if they knew we wouldn't be voting, so that obviously saves mileage, expenses, etc.," Senate spokeswoman Jacque Bland said. "The hard part in calculations is by and large, the totals are running. Senators turn in forms with expenses and per diems, and then they're processed."

Negotiations have narrowed some differences. Talks continued Monday in a conference committee of senators and delegates while Gov. Jim Justice met with minority Democrats.

"There have been a handful of delegates who were working on negotiations when the Legislature was in recess, however they're generally on their own dime when they're here and we're not in session," Houses spokesman Jared Hunt said. Some leaders can get paid for separate "duty" days.

House Finance Committee Chairman Eric Nelson told colleagues in a brief floor session Monday that they're currently considering different income tax brackets and state revenue targets that would trigger future tax cuts. If they can't find a viable bill out of the conference committee, the House panel has alternatives that will emerge later this week, he said.

The Senate convened for only a few minutes Monday and began advancing legislation to designate "essential" state employees who would keep working without an approved budget when the new fiscal year starts July 1 and also protect the health care benefits of state workers who are furloughed. The House has already passed it.

The regular two-month session ended in early April with the Republican-controlled Legislature passing a $4.1 billion general revenue budget that the Democratic governor vetoed, saying the cuts were too deep for higher education, Medicaid and other programs.

The House has since rejected Justice-backed bills passed by the Senate to cut income taxes while raising sales taxes.

His latest proposal would eliminate any income tax cut for West Virginians with annual incomes above $300,000. That could placate some Democratic critics who said earlier proposals would mainly benefit the rich.

"The wealthiest of our people need to step up," Justice said. Senate President Mitch Carmichael and House Speaker Tim Armstead didn't like it but agreed, he said.

The proposal would raise the sales tax from 6 percent to 6.35 percent.

His plan would also set tiers for coal tax rates to rise and fall with market prices. It would raise the wholesale price on gasoline by 3.5 cents a gallon to support a road rebuilding program and increase employment, he said.

"This business of being down here on the taxpayers' dime is no good," Justice said. He hoped the Legislature would now pass the tax changes and budget and end the session, he said.