CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Where’s the state budget? The leaders of the House and Senate finance committees say their answers to filling the state’s half-billion-dollar estimated gap for the next fiscal year are coming in short order.

Eric Nelson

House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, at the end of a four-hour floor session today, stood to say his committee will have a budget nailed down tight enough to be approved before the last day of this year’s session. Tradition is for the Legislature to use a special budget session following the regular 60-day session to pass a budget.

“My goal is to have a bill before this body and approved before the last day. It has never been done,” said Nelson, R-Kanawha. “I’m committed to that.”

Mike Hall

His counterpart, Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, said on an appearance today on “Talkline” with Hoppy Kercheval that he is aiming to have a budget framework to be presented to the Senate by the 30th day of the session, which is next Thursday.

“My whiteboard is ready,” Hall, R-Putnam, told Kercheval.

One complication for both chairmen is that any legislation that would increase or reduce funding has to be calculated into the budget. That’s why the budget bill always comes last.

“I would say the to the public who thinks we’re not working – and to the governor — we could produce a budget document if the numbers are settled and the legislation is all passed very quickly. There’s no sitting on our thumbs,” Hall told Kercheval. “We’re working on ways to only spend the revenue that we have. That’s my goal.”

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Jim Justice

Gov. Jim Justice has put the pressure on in recent days. On Monday, he presented an alternative budget proposal from the one he outlined during his State of the State address. On Wednesday, the administration mounted a budget countdown clock to the end of the session outside the governor’s reception room.

Either Justice budget proposal is based largely on “revenue enhancements,” mostly new or increased taxes, to balance the budget. He specifically proposed $27 million in cuts, although this week he said he could live with up to $50 million in cuts if legislators could point to some that wouldn’t be catastrophic. But, he added, he doubts they can.

Justice, who has been going on the road with a “Save Our State” campaign, said from Fairmont on Thursday that he thinks the Legislature’s approach to cutting is wrongheaded.

“They want to cut you back,” Justice said Thursday morning at the Falcon Center on the campus of Fairmont State University. “They want to eliminate you. They want us to slow down. They want to divide.”

Hall, appearing on “Talkline,” said the Republican majority in the Legislature does want to start with cuts before asking West Virginians to pay additional taxes.

“Maybe this is acceptable or not acceptable to the administration,” Hall said. “I think it’s acceptable to a great majority of the public out there, which is saying we’re expecting you guys to trim back before you come to us asking for money.”

Senate leadership is working with a mix of possibilities that could account for about $250 million in cuts, Hall said.

Those include nixing the governor’s proposed “Save Our State” fund for savings of up to $105 million, smoothing out payments to the teachers retirement system for a possible $43 million in savings next year, continuing some of the midyear cuts implemented by former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin for about $25 million, cutting state funding for dog racing for $24 million, foregoing the governor’s proposed pay raise for teachers for $21 million, eliminating some unfilled agency vacancies for $10 million, doing away with the Courtesy Patrol for $5 million, eliminating the Department of Education and the Arts and placing its responsibilities elsewhere for $4 million and cutting $3 million in funding for fairs and festivals.

Got that?

From there, lawmakers would have to consider cuts to education/higher education and DHHR, areas that make up more than two-thirds of the state’s general fund.

Reducing funding to education would mean making changes to the state school aid formula. Hall and others have said the state’s school systems might be able to make do with less if they had fewer regulations and greater flexibility.

At that point, if the budget remains $100 million or so short, lawmakers could look at increasing revenue or dipping into the Rainy Day Fund as potential solutions, Hall said.

From there, lawmakers would get serious about talks with the Justice administration, Hall said.

“I didn’t anticipate based on his public comment that he’s going to support this particular budget, but I don’t know,” Hall said. “In all negotiations you start somewhere.”

Nelson, speaking on the House floor on Thursday afternoon, said his committee has been hard at work to prepare a budget. He said he divided the full committee into 14 bipartisan subcommittees to look at funding for state agencies.

He said much of what might seem like taking time is a matter of being thorough.

“Ask the questions: How can government be more efficient? Do we need to continue expenditures at the same, lower or higher levels? Is our staffing correct for each of these agencies? Are we providing the right services. Do we need the services? Do we need more?” Nelson said.

“Finally, asking the questions: some of these services put in place many years ago, maybe decades ago, are they still required?”

Nelson agreed with Hall that the Legislature’s budget fix needs to begin with cuts.

“Only after sufficient time has been spent analyzing our state agency budgets to determine what structural shortfall exists, only then should we consider revenue measures,” he said.

Nelson began his floor speech with criticism for Justice, whom he said has offered few suggestions for cuts and actually increases spending through items such as his SOS proposal and the pay raise for classroom teachers.

“To date we’ve received few recommendations for improved efficiencies from our executive or cost savings in our budget,” Nelson said.

Mick Bates

Before Nelson spoke, Delegate Mick Bates got out a whiteboard — emulating Governor Justice’s penchant for whiteboard usage — and wrote down the number of days left in the session (37) along with the number of budget proposals Justice has produced (2).

“The deeper we go into this session, the more time, energy and goodwill this session will eat up,” said Bates, D-Raleigh.

House Majority Leader Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, responded to Bates with some numbers of his own.

Cowles said he had no whiteboard but, “I would write down these numbers: ‘4. 5. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0. 0.’ Four hundred fifty million dollars.”

That’s the current estimate for the budget gap for the coming fiscal year.

Cowles continued, “Live within our means, belt tightening, smaller government, treat the taxpayer fairly — those are the things we heard on the campaign trail.

“Our governor is a big man with big ideas, but his proposals so far have been big tax increases. His solutions were big tax increases.”

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