By Erika Diehl, West Virginia Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The West Virginia Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee turned its attention this week to the history and causes of the Department of Transportation’s budget deficit.
SB 489 reinstates the method of returning sales tax spent on contractor materials for road maintenance and construction to the State Road Fund. This method reverts back to previous legislation put in place in 2007.
Legislation passed in 2018 removed the tax exemption, stating the Tax Commissioner shall transfer taxes collected into the State General Revenue Fund instead.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Sen. Rollan Roberts, R – Raleigh, said he wondered if the 2018 legislation was a knee jerk reaction to the Roads to Prosperity program initiated by Gov. Jim Justice in 2017. This program generated $2.8 billion for the State Road Fund in fees, taxes and bonds.
The Deputy Secretary of the Department of Transportation and Deputy Commissioner of Highways, Jimmy Wriston, was present for questions.
The Roads to Prosperity program changed the landscape, Wriston said. It was a great start and helped build a maintenance fleet with more employees and take care of big projects like King Coal Highway and Corridor H, he said. adding that, as a result of the underinvestment over several decades, that program was just one of the many silver bullets needed.
Wriston said the amount of money needed to take care of every project in the state approaches $30 billion.
“The effect of eliminating funding going to the Highway Department has the equivalency of just reducing the Department of Highway’s budget for the year,” said Sen. Chandler Swope, R-Mercer. “(This bill] will give a little bit more money to fill that huge void.”
In 2020, the exemptions would have added up to $20 million. The estimation for this year so far is $14 million.
“It’s road fund dollars,” Wriston said. “It should go back to the road fund to continue doing more maintenance and more construction.”
Sen. Robert Beach, D-Monongalia, made a public request for Wriston to use the exemption money to fix the pothole at mile marker 144 on I-79, for which he receives many complaints.
“I intend to patch all the potholes, but that one will get priority,” said Wriston. He went on to confirm the Department has accepted the Governor’s challenge to have every pothole done before Memorial Day.
With unanimous approval, the bill will move to the full Senate after first being referred to the Committee on Finance.
A committee substitute for SB 474 was adopted during the meeting. This is an agency bill from the Department of Transportation Division of Highways exempting DOH from Purchasing Division Procedures.
The Director of Operations Division in the Division of Highways, Jacob Bumgarner, appeared before the committee and was asked to describe the reason this bill is important to Highways.
“I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of changes for putting out contracts,” Bumgarner said. “We feel like this is going to be a time saving issue. We feel like we are capable of making the proper decisions based on the laws that are in place to run those contracts in a way that is transparent and correct.”
Bumgarner said the time it takes for the current process has caused the department to miss out on bids or stall projects waiting on a part from a specified vendor rather than a local store.
SB 529, correcting improper citation relating to DMV registration, was on the agenda, as was committee substitute for SB 346 authorizing the DMV to use electronic notice for licensees and vehicle owners. Both bills were adopted with no discussion and will move to the full Senate.