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W.Va. school aid formula reforms pass Legislature

March 08, 2008|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA. -- Legislation to reform the public school funding formula cleared the West Virginia Legislature in the waning hours of the regular session Saturday while area lawmakers continued to wage a battle to kill a "toll roads" bill that eyed three Eastern Panhandle highways.

The final version of bill for public school funding (House Bill 4588) didn't entirely satisfy Eastern Panhandle lawmakers, who said they agreed to compromise to gain at least some benefit.

A proposed property tax break for seniors (Senate Bill 239) was amended and passed by the House just after 9:30 p.m., and was on track for final passage, pending the Senate's decision to accept House amendments.

"It's high stakes poker down here," said Del. Walter Duke, R-Berkeley, little more than seven hours from the midnight end of the session.

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Duke said the House bowed to the Senate's amended version of the school aid formula legislation in House Bill 4588, but urged senators to look at what delegates had proposed for next year's session.

As approved, Berkeley County Schools' benefit from the bill was lowered from a little more than $3 million to about $2.1 million in a five-year, phased-in plan, Duke said. Jefferson County would receive $700,000, down from about $1.6 million, if the bill is signed into law by Gov. Joe Manchin.

The House version of the bill proposed a three-year, phase-in benefit targeting transportation funding and hiring of school nurses and counselors. The Senate version eyed money for teachers.

Del. Bob Tabb said the Senate agreed to keep "conceptual" changes proposed in the House version of the school aid formula bill.

"Now, it's a matter of funding the steps we put in there," said Tabb, D-Jefferson.

Duke and Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said Saturday they retreated from offering amendments to the property tax bill for seniors that would have excluded Social Security income and increased the rebate eligibility to about $30,000 or less, instead of a $25,000 threshold.

"Those were deal breakers with the leadership here," Blair said.

Del. Jonathan Miller, R-Berkeley, was able to win approval of an amendment Saturday that removed the application of interest on deferred property taxes for individuals who didn't qualify for the low income tax rebate that state Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, successfully argued for last week.

Unger said Saturday night that the application of interest on the deferred taxes was added in the House and not part of the original bill.

Some bills died well before Saturday's traditionally climactic race to the finish, but Unger and John Yoder, R-Jefferson, spent considerable time attempting to kill House Bill 4476, which they believed could very well lead to the installation of tolls for motorists on W.Va. 9, U.S. 340 and U.S. 522.

"We had a good hour debate on it (Friday) night," Yoder said Saturday less than four hours before the session was scheduled to end.

Yoder said he gave a floor speech Saturday warning colleagues that the toll road bill's adoption would assure the defeat of table games by Jefferson County voters.

"I said I felt like Custer at his last stand," Yoder said.

Among other bills that passed was legislation that Yoder said would encourage construction of affordable housing through a change in appraisal/tax assessment methods for multifamily rental property. Lawmakers also approved property tax reductions on corporate and commercial aircraft to salvage value rates, and severed the administrative link between Shepherd University and Blue Ridge Community & Technical College.

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