CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Senate President Mitch Carmichael and House Speaker Tim Armstead say they’re glad Gov. Jim Justice sent a letter clarifying his budget priorities.
But they’d like even more clarification.
“He’s made 24 or 25 changes,” Carmichael said today during an interview in his office. “To ask for more clarity it’s simply a responsible, reasonable request. These are an enormous amount of changes by any measure. These are lots and lots of changes.”
The Justice administration on Friday sent a letter to Carmichael and Armstead, asking for revisions to the governor’s proposed budget.
This was the letter in which Justice explained his desire to hire back 15 state foresters who were laid off last summer, reversed course on his desire to de-fund public broadcasting and laid out some of the changes reflected in his updated budget proposal that he described Feb. 27.
As the opening sentence of the letter explained, “there are a few areas that require adjustments.”
The letter then said the changes, in coordination with the governor’s revenue proposals, would result in a general fund surplus of $54 million for the coming fiscal year.
Carmichael said legislative leadership wants to be sure it knows exactly what the governor is saying.
“This degree of change is significant,” said Carmichael, R-Jackson. “We’re very cautious after having last year gotten to the last hours of being ready to pass a budget and the governor (then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin) sending back almost a hundred million dollars in changes and throwing the whole process into a tailspin.
“This Legislature is very protective of the people’s budgeting process this year, and we will not allow that to happen again.”
So Carmichael and Armstead responded with their own letter, asking Justice for more detail. Their letter notes that they count at least two dozen proposed changes to appropriations.
Their tally includes $110 million in appropriations decreases — mostly from a reduced “Save Our State” fund proposal and smoothing the teachers retirement system. But they also count several million more in appropriations increases, including the intention to restore public broadcasting to full funding, $4.6 million.
Carmichael and Armstead wrote, “Given the significant number of changes to your recommended FY 2018 budget and the fact that neither of our chambers has actually received any official ‘revised revenue proposals’ you spoke about in your second budget presentation, we would respectfully request a revised revenue estimate from you so that we can confirm these changes ‘result in a FY 2018 budget surplus in the General Revenue Fund of over $54 million.'”
In the interview in his office, Carmichael said this is not meant to troll the governor.
Instead, Carmichael said, it’s a matter of being clear and careful.
“So we want to see the details about that as any responsible person would as you evaluate the budget alternatives,” Carmichael said.
“Rather than having a series of changes and thoughts and stream-of-consciousness things that come from the governor’s office, we would prefer to have a document that solidifies the plan so that we can adequately evaluate it and debate it.”
Carmichael said some of the governor’s stated budget desires have not yet been reflected as bills. The governor’s bills are generally sponsored by legislative leadership as a courtesy. The last day to introduce bills in the Senate was today, March 20, although that doesn’t apply to appropriations bills.
“Some of the things he has proposed we don’t have bills for,” Carmichael said. “We don’t even have bills from the governor’s office. We’ve got a few days left to introduce the governor’s bills.
“We would prefer to have those up here so we don’t have to suspend the rules and do all kinds of gyrations from a parliamentary perspective. I understand he’s new and he’s learning, so we’re not being disrespectful at all. We’re simply reaching out to him with a fully-documented letter that asks for the specifics of his plan.”
That same issue came up on the House of Delegates floor session last week when Delegate Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, noted in a speech that day, March 14, was the last day to introduce bills in the House.
“Last night the governor was down in Bluefield criticizing us on TV,” Householder, vice-chairman of the House Finance Committee said in his floor speech. “I think he’s traveling around state, blasting us for not passing a plan that he didn’t even bother to submit.”
Minority Leader Tim Miley responded that says bills submitted on the governor’s behalf would be vehicles for governor’s agenda “if you’re interested in pursuing the governor’s agenda, which I’m not sure you are.”
There are still some blanks in the legislative majority’s budget proposal too.
The legislative Republicans say their budget will not exceed the state’s $4.055 billion revenue estimate. To fill the coming fiscal gap, the GOP specified $277.7 million in budget measures but left $150 million undefined.
GOP leadership says that money is likely to come via reduced funding to education, higher education and the Department of Health and Human Resources.
Justice today offered his own criticism of that approach.
“I’ve told the people I don’t want to raise taxes but now you’re portrayed as ‘Raise taxes or live within your means.’ It’s absolutely ludicrous to portray it that way,” Justice said today while speaking before state tourism representatives.
“It should have been portrayed ‘Recovery or death.’ That’s what it is. It’s recovery or death. It’s not taxes or live within your means.”
Justice later added, “For people to portray this as taxes vs. live within your means, you’re an idiot. You’re an idiot if you think that. This is recovery versus death.”