CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The state budget looks better this year, but new demands are abundant too.
Gov. Jim Justice has promised $100 million to shore up insurance for public employees, plus average 5 percent pay raises.
Four-year colleges have talked about wanting $10 million to make up for cuts of recent years.
The Senate wants to make community and technical college less expensive for students at an estimated cost of less than $10 million.
The Senate majority also wants to establish an intermediate court of appeals at a cost of somewhere between $3 million and $12 million.
The Republican majorities in both houses would like to cut property taxes for businesses. The details of doing so would define the cost, but it would certainly be in the tens of millions annually.
Both parties in both houses are interested in cutting back the taxes people pay on Social Security benefits.
So there’s a long list and a lot of interest. But is the money there?
The answer will begin to take shape this week, first as Governor Justice gives his State of the State address and then as the regular legislative session begins.
“We’ll look at the budget and see how it all balances out and see how we can make it all fit,” Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said Friday during a Legislative Lookahead event.
“We don’t want to spend wildly.”
After several years of stagnation, state revenue figures have improved in recent months, running millions of dollars over projections.
Much of that improvement has been on the strength of coal exports and natural gas pipeline construction.
“A lot of this surplus may well be related to the drilling industry and the pipeline industry,” said state Senator Ron Stollings, D-Boone.
The boom and bust nature of energy production raises questions about how confident state leaders should be in the revenue momentum.
“Things are looking better, maybe not as bright as everyone would wish,” said Delegate Vernon Criss, R-Wood.
“But until our economy diversifies to other things besides energy, we’re going to have a struggle when the energy market turns down.”
Criss is among the lawmakers with responsibility for determining how far the money goes. He is the new vice chairman of the House Finance Committee.
The big-ticket item will be the governor’s proposal for $100 million for PEIA plus average 5 percent raises for most public employees.
Criss is looking not only at the coming fiscal year, but also the years after that. He’s heartened by an improving state economy, but also watches for economic uncertainty ahead.
“If the economy continues to do that, there shouldn’t be any problem being able to fund it the next year. So what do you do down the road?” Criss asked.
Criss acknowledged being new to his role but suggested the governor has already spoken for much of the money that might be available.
“I don’t call it in the hole, but we’re awfully restricted,” he said.
One big factor for the coming fiscal year will be the governor’s revenue estimate versus the costs of Justice’s priorities.
“I’m two days on the job as vice chairman. A lot depends on what his excellency the governor is going to bring to us next Wednesday night,” Criss said. “We’re just going to have to wait and see.
“If he is planning to do what he said he announced he was going to do then he will have to show that in his budget. We’ll figure out if we can agree with him or come out with a different kind of plan.”
West Virginia’s teachers made their salary and benefits demands clear last year by walking out of schools for nine days, with thousands rallying at the Capitol.
Although Governor Justice had proposed average pay raises of 1 percent during last year’s State of the State, teachers pushed for and received average 5 percent raises by the end.
Anger about increasing out-of-pocket insurance costs also led to a cost freeze and the promise of a task force to examine insurance for public employees.
Prior to this year’s General Election, Justice promised the additional influx of $100 million, plus additional average 5 percent raises.
The leaders of West Virginia’s two teachers unions said they intend to hold state officials to that promise.
“They tell us they have a surplus, so yes we believe it’s there,” said Fred Albert, president of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia.
“It seems like anything we want to do, we find the money to do it. We’re expecting them to be promises kept.”
West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee agreed.
“Yes, we believe the money is there,” he said.
“I’ve been around a long time. Anything they make a priority, the money is there for.”