One of the most commonly asked questions at the State Capitol now is, “What’s the latest on the budget?” The answer is complicated, and here’s why.
You cannot narrow the discussion to one particular plan because there isn’t one. There are multiple plans, frameworks, concepts and proposals being floated by Governor Justice and lawmakers.
These concepts sometimes change rapidly during stakeholder meetings. What appears to be on the table going into a meeting may come off the table by the time they break up. In the meantime, a totally new concept may have been introduced.
Not all the stakeholders meet at the same time. The Governor or his representatives may meet with House Republican leaders and that will be followed by a caucus where the leaders take the concepts back to their members.
While that is going on, the administration is meeting with Democratic leaders to take their temperature, and they then report to their caucus.
These caucuses are critical because that’s where the leaders can gauge the support or opposition to particular proposals. It’s also where the whips can do some vote counting to try to determine what can pass and what won’t.
The leaders then have to get back to the Governor’s people with what they have learned, and that can start the process all over again.
Additionally, even the principals involved in the discussions often emerge with very different views of what’s on the table. Numerous times in the last few days I’ve had one primary source tell me one thing and another person in the same meeting give me a very different story.
The kind of “shuttle diplomacy” that is taking place is, by its nature, given to misunderstandings, but that’s why you keep it going. The process, when done in good faith, can weed out discrepancies, while zeroing in on what is and what is not in play.
I hear the frustration in the voices of the players, but I’m actually encouraged. They are talking—frequently—and ideas are popping out like the spring blossoms on the Capitol grounds. The posturing has given way to discussion of specifics on how best to spend the limited resources of the state, whether to raise new revenue and, if so, how best to do that.
Like any such discussions, they could blow up at any moment, but I don’t think they will. Legislative leaders and Governor Justice can agree on one thing: a lengthy special session to get a budget for the second year in a row would be a public relations disaster and failing to get a plan by the start of the new fiscal year July 1 would be a catastrophe.
The federal government has budget tricks it can play to keep operating, but West Virginia would have to turn out the lights.
So, I can’t tell you at this moment exactly where the budget talks stand—it’s like trying to zero in on multiple moving targets shrouded in thick fog—but they are trying to get a budget, and they know time is running out.