The ongoing budget debate in Charleston has been one of shifting alliances marked by inability to get the Governor, the House and the Senate to coalesce around a set of fiscal principles that would serve as the framework for a new state budget.
There are actually five separate groups involved in the budget process: The Justice administration, House Republicans, House Democrats, Senate Republicans and Senate Democrats. Further complicating matters is that the House and Senate can splinter off into sub groups, even if they are members of the same party.
These groups and subgroups have myriad views on what combination of tax cuts, tax increases, spending cuts and additional spending that should comprise the budget. It’s like a budget Rubik’s Cube–when a proposal is made that satisfies one contingent, another is alienated.
Party affiliation is important, but it’s not always binding. For example, earlier this month House Republicans overwhelmingly rejected a key revenue bill that was supported by every Republican in the Senate. And now Senate Democrats are distancing themselves from fellow Democrat Governor Jim Justice.
Tuesday, all 11 Senate Democrats present voted against the latest version of the revenue bill agreed to by the Governor and Senate Republicans, even after the Governor appeared before the Senate to call for their support. But Minority Leader Roman Prezioso indicated he had lost patience with constantly shifting personal income tax numbers coming from Republican leaders and the Governor.
“We’re really concerned,” Prezioso said. “We don’t think we have the information that we need. We don’t think the information out now is legitimized.” His fellow Democrats concurred, and privately a few Senate Republicans have similar worries that the personal income tax rate reduction will blow a multimillion dollar hole in next year’s budget.
That would create significant problems for next year. Lawmakers would have to raise taxes in an election year or find the political will to make deeper cuts in state government spending.
House Republican leaders say they want to reach out to House Democrats to see if they can find any common ground on a budget. If they can agree to a compromise and pass a revenue bill with bi-partisan support, it would shift the pressure to the Senate and the Governor to get on board.
Governor Justice’s position has been weakened by the loss of Senate Democrats on the revenue bill Tuesday, especially considering that less than two weeks ago all but one of those Democrats supported a similar plan. And the relations between Justice and Senate Democrats were further damaged Wednesday when the Governor labeled their “no” vote “petty politics.”
This budget labyrinth keeps the alliances shifting. For the sake of West Virginia, at some point there needs to be at least a brief alignment to avoid a ruinous shutdown of the government.