Sometimes you have to declare victory and leave.
That’s where Gov. Jim Justice and lawmakers are after a 20-day special session to pass a balanced budget for the state before the new fiscal year begins July 1.
If the budget agreed to Friday by the House and Senate was a building it would be cinder block with a tin roof; not a thing of beauty, but structurally stable. It balances spending with the projected general revenue collections of $4.225 billion.
After that, however, there’s not much to see.
There is no decrease in personal income tax rates, no increase in the consumer sales tax or broadening of the sales tax base. There’s no money for classroom teacher pay raises or the governor’s proposed Save Our State fund. The plan limits any spending cuts to reduce the size of government.
So, you ask, what does the budget do? It keeps the state government from shutting down. Granted, that hardly counts as high-minded public policy making. However, the budget debate had become a tinderbox and with the deadline looming, just getting a base agreement is an accomplishment.
One significant hurdle remains. Justice still must decide whether to sign the budget bill into law, let it become law without his signature or veto it. A veto would be a huge mistake.
First, a veto would likely lead to a government shutdown unless both chambers of the legislature could pull together a two-thirds majority to override that veto. The House and Senate could probably do that, but who wants to take that chance?
Second, there would be plenty of blame to go around in the event of a shutdown, but most would fall to the governor since his veto pen would be the action most identified with the budget failure.
Third, what would be gained by a veto? The House is dead set against the plan to lower personal income tax rates and raise the consumer sales tax. The governor has tried multiple times to advance that proposal in one form or another and all have failed. Why try again?
Fourth, this train has run out of track. The weariness, mistrust and anger that have built up in recent weeks have made it impossible to come up with a better plan in just a few short days.
Neither the governor nor lawmakers would have drawn up the budget process to work this way, but this is how it played out. The events should be instructional. Going forward, the principals will have fresh memories of the angst and futility of this budget debate that pushed the state to the brink of closure.
The learned lesson for future sessions should be, “We don’t want to go through that again.”