We heard myriad budget proposals during the just-completed two-month long session of the Legislature. Ideas for increasing taxes and cutting spending came and went and then reappeared as Governor Jim Justice and House and Senate leaders tried to find consensus on a way forward for our financially strapped state.
As of today, we have a $4.1 billion budget proposal that the House and Senate passed largely along party lines. It’s a budget House Speaker Tim Armstead says he hopes the Governor will seriously consider, but he knows a veto is imminent.
But even getting here has been a circuitous route.
Justice floated a number of different ideas during the last two months. That approach sometimes confused legislative leaders. Along the way Justice stuck to the principles of fewer cuts and more taxes.
For 59 days the Senate held firm on deep cuts, with spending equal to next year’s revenue collections, but then did an about face on the 60th day, when Senate President Mitch Carmichael embraced large swaths of the Governor’s plan for higher taxes as long as they were coupled with tax reform.
House leaders originally pledged support with the Senate for no new taxes and cuts of $150 million to public education, higher education and the Department of Health and Human Resources. However, the House later changed course with a budget that initially raised approximately $159 million in new revenue by broadening the sales tax, and then gradually lowering it.
As you can see, there were a lot of moving targets.
Fundamentally, however, the issue remains the same as when the process began; should the state cut spending, increase taxes or a combination of both? The 134 members of the Legislature, Governor Justice, various interested groups and constituents have different opinions about the best approach.
For example, is the $15 million subsidy to the dog racing industry from casino revenue a job creator or an unnecessary government expense? The House and Senate passed a bill to eliminate the subsidy, but the Governor vetoed the bill.
Another example: The initial Senate budget cut DHHR by $50 million. That’s a big number, but it’s also only five percent of the General Revenue portion of funding for that agency. However, dozens of West Virginia families who benefit from the services provided for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities rallied at the Capitol against those cuts. Governor Justice spoke at the gathering and promised to protect the funding.
And that’s how it goes, line by line by line, in the budget.
If there is a silver lining to the darkened budget cloud it is that since February we have been having the debate over the role of government and how best to collect the revenue necessary to pay for those services. That should be an ongoing process so we are not simply pouring more of the people’s money into existing and new programs while simultaneously tinkering around the margins with the tax code.
Yes, it’s frustrating that we will likely need a special session to try to find a deal on the budget, but let’s keep asking the questions—what is the appropriate role of state government and what are the best ways to pay for it?