CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Two longtime members of the state House of Delegates see different possible paths to balancing West Virginia’s 2017 budget which, as projected now, comes with a $270 million funding shortfall.
Delegate John Overington (R-Berkeley, 62) argued state government is too large, reductions in spending are needed and, to accomplish that, government services must be prioritized. “Hard choices,” he said, must be made.
“We don’t want to increase taxes on hardworking West Virginians that already are struggling. That’s the top priority that I see and it’s going to mean some hardships for different interest groups that are getting state money that may not be getting it in the future,” Overington said.
He is an opponent of the 45 cent per pack cigarette tax increase Governor Earl Ray Tomblin proposed as a revenue generating measure.
During the 2016 Regular Legislative Session, the tax hike was taken to $1 per pack in the Senate, for $1.55 total. House Republicans rejected that, though.
Delegate Jim Morgan (D-Cabell, 16) predicted there will be no balanced budget without both spending cuts and tax increases. “I think that there has to be a compromise on those two as we move forward,” he said.
Both Overington, who was first elected in 1984, and Morgan, who was appointed to the House in 2001 and then elected in 2002, were guests on Friday’s MetroNews “Talkline.” They are not part of the working House-Senate budget conference committee.
Earlier this week on MetroNews “Talkline,” Tomblin provided a “worst case scenario” for cuts that may have to be made if the new state budget is approved without tax increases and the entire $270 million shortfall is addressed with funding reductions only.
Those possibilities included the following:
– A four percent, or $63 million, reduction to public education spending, leading to layoffs of 800 school teachers and 500 service personnel.
– An eight percent, or $28 million, reduction to higher education, translating to closures of institutions or their branches.
– The removal of $47.5 million from the Promise Scholarship program, ending the scholarship program.
Tomblin Administration officials claimed the kinds of cuts needed would, hypothetically, eliminate all General Revenue funding for the Commerce Department, the Department of Education and the Arts, the Department of Revenue minus the Tax Department, the Department of Veterans Assistance and State Police.
“If you make those cuts, you’re the same as raising taxes on people in West Virginia by taking away the services that then they’ll have to pay for in some other way,” Morgan said. He, along with other House Democrats, is an advocate for a $1 hike to the cigarette tax.
As of Friday, though, he was not ruling out a compromise reducing that increase to Tomblin’s proposed 45 cents. “The Democrats have basically, admittedly, drawn a line in the sand, but sand shifts,” Morgan said.
A 45 cent increase is not completely off the table among House Republicans, according to Overington. “That would be something that, maybe, a number of Republicans could join with Democrats. I’d have problems with it, but I think there might be a way to get 51 to do that,” he said.
At the close of the week, it was not clear when lawmakers could be called into a Special Session to finalize a budget.
The 2017 Fiscal Year begins on July 1.
Updated revenue numbers for the current fiscal year may be available next week. At the beginning of March, revenue officials said the shortfall for the 2016 budget year had grown to $354 million and was “trending upwards.”