CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Republican legislative leaders this afternoon said their version of the state budget will not exceed the $4.055 billion revenue estimate and promised they’ll have a final budget document prior to the end of the 60-day regular session.
“We talk about spending what we have as if it’s a novel concept, and it’s not,” said Senate President Mitch Carmichael. “It’s interesting that we have this many people gathered to announce that we’re going to spend no more than we have.
“Here we are, we’re living within our means — and it’s news.”
The legislative news conference in the Senate’s Reception Room at the state Capitol was meant to answer questions about their preferred approach to filling the estimated half-billion budget gap for the coming fiscal year.
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Carmichael and House Speaker Tim Armstead, flanked by other legislative leaders, specified $277.7 million in budget measures they’ve identified to make up the difference between what they believe there is to spend and Gov. Jim Justice’s proposed $4.505 billion budget.
They also acknowledged that will mean cutting about $150 million from the big state budget areas of K-12 education, the Department of Health and Human Resources and higher education — but they said the specifics of those cuts will be determined through the normal budgeting process.
“In general, what has been off the table for so long around here is the programs that are sacrosanct — DHHR, higher ed, public ed,” Carmichael said. “Those are elements that we recognize that we have to take looks at, and we are willing to do those things.”
Armstead added, “The bottom line is, we have talked about these three areas and avoided ever getting into the three areas that constitute roughly three-quarters of the general revenue budget, and that is DHHR, higher ed and K-12 education.
“We believe there are very responsible ways we can go into those funds, make reductions — and in addition to that we think the amount we would have to reduce those areas can be reduced by some of the reforms that the work groups have been working on in the finance committees.”
There were some specific areas where they intend to cut, decline to spend or otherwise save money. The list appears to be based on the budget the governor proposed in his State of the State address:
- Elimination of the proposed “Save Our State” Fund, declining to spend $105.5 million
- Continue 2-percent mid-year cuts implemented by former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin; saving $21.9 million
- Not including Gov. Justice’s proposed 2-percent teacher pay increase; saving $21 million
- Eliminating greyhound subsidies; saving $15 million
- End the casino modernization subsidy; saving $9 million
- Foregoing Gov. Justice’s $5.6 million tourism advertising increase
- Redirecting a $38.3 million transfer for the Workers’ Compensation Fund
- Redirecting a $30.9 million General Revenue/Lottery Surplus transfer
- Foregoing a General Revenue transfer to the Division of Highways; saving $11.7 million
- Accepting a $2.8 million increase to the beer barrel tax (from $5.50 to $8)
- Recognizing a wholesale liquor increase from 28 percent to 32 percent (does not require legislation)
Governor Justice has proposed a budget dependent on $26 million in cuts and an estimated $450 million in increased revenue, mostly tax increases.
Justice has regularly criticized the Republican legislative majority for not coming out with its own budget proposal. The governor’s office has a clock counting down to the end of the 60-day legislative session. The same countdown appears on the governor’s website.
Today’s legislative news conference included two very large facsimiles of checks.
One was made out to state agencies for the Legislature’s stated budget amount of $4.055 billion.
And the other had a large, red “Returned Non-Sufficient Funds” stamp across it diagonally. That one was made out for $4.505 billion from Governor Jim Justice.
Carmichael and Armstead said they briefed the governor this morning on their budget proposal. When asked about that meeting, Carmichael referred to “James,” which is the name Justice used in his inaugural address to refer to times when he’s really not happy.
“The governor, I believe, wants to do the right thing as well. He may have a different view of how to get there,” Carmichael said. “And obviously he does. He wants to propose the largest tax increase in state history and spend more in the general revenue budget than has ever been spent.”
Justice’s reaction began with Southern culture’s version of an eye roll:
“Bless their hearts, but the Legislature’s framework will not save the patient. What we saw today from the House and Senate only kicks the can around the block. It doesn’t give our classroom teachers a pay raise, it doesn’t increase tourism advertising, it doesn’t bring jobs, and it lacks the tools to jump start our economy,” the governor stated in a release put out by his office.
Justice has said the maximum amount of cuts he would be willing to accept is $50 million.
Carmichael characterized the potential cuts to education, higher education and DHHR as responsible.
“What we’re saying as a Legislature is we can’t do this surgically, like an executive branch,” Carmichael said. “We have to do this in a way that allocates the funds. We are providing flexibility to the different agencies to be able to implement the spending that we’re providing them in the most efficient manner possible.”
Armstead said some of the cuts could come from what he described as state-level bureaucracy.
“The top-heavy bureaucracy of our education system that goes into different areas like the education performance audits, the RESAs — that are not talking about getting right into the classroom,” Armstead said. “We’re talking about the state-level bureaucracy. We’re going to start there.”
Armstead and Carmichael said they will have the budget ready prior to the end of the 60-day legislative session. Legislators routinely note that the budget is normally finalized in an extended session the week after the regular session concludes.
“The big part is putting out the framework, which is what we’re doing here today,” Carmichael said.
Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, R-Putnam, said the budget document could be complete within a couple of days of being assured no additional spending measures are coming.
“We can have it when we have all the legislation passed that would affect it. So all you have to do is make sure you don’t wait until late Saturday night to pass a bill that would affect it,” Hall said.