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What happens if the (state’s) lights go out?

West Virginia lawmakers return to Charleston today to resume work on a state budget. There are still 46 days before the start of the new fiscal year, so the Legislature and the governor have time to craft a spending plan.

However, if no agreement is reached by July 1, the government will shut down. The state Legislature, unlike the United States Congress, does not have the ability to pass a temporary spending resolution to keep the government open and operating.

J.B. McCuskey

State Auditor J.B. McCuskey, the state’s bill-payer-in-chief, has been working with his staff to figure out what to do if there is a shutdown. “There are eight million results that you can’t really plan for, but we are trying to model for as much as possible,” McCuskey said.

He wants guidance from the state Supreme Court on how much leeway he has on bill-paying, but he does have a set of principles.

“I believe there are certain things that should be paid no matter what — prison guards, state police, the National Guard, nursing home staff. There are people in this state who truly cannot survive but for the government,” he said. “It’s incumbent upon my office to make sure there are not any life or death scenarios that are created by the shutdown.”

Beyond that, who gets paid?

McCuskey admits that a shutdown would be new territory, so nobody really knows. The Auditor’s office would likely prioritize vendor payments. “After that, people are going to have to wait. You just can’t run government in the event of a shutdown.”

McCuskey has to be especially careful because under state law he can be held personally criminally liable for payment of bills for which he has no authority. Without a working budget, who knows what payments would be a violation of the law?

West Virginia could look at other states for guidance. Minnesota shut down for 20 days in 2011 over a budget dispute.  Governor Mark Dayton devised a list of “critical core functions” to continue, including prison and state-run nursing homes. The list also included certain public safety functions and some benefit payments.

A budget dispute closed New Jersey for eight days in 2006, resulting in the furlough of 45,000 state employees and the closure of “non-essential state operations.” Gov. Jon Corzine kept the state police, child protective services and mental hospitals operating.

Then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin started planning for a government shutdown last year when the West Virginia Legislature also struggled to agree on a budget. Tomblin was prepared to declare a state of emergency to broaden his powers to try to keep as much of the state functioning as was practicable.

The first step for current Gov.Jim Justice is to obtain the authority to furlough state workers. He had introduced a bill to give him that authority during the regular session. It passed the Senate 23-11, but stalled in the House. The Administration is expected to put the furlough bill back on the agenda for this special session.

A government shutdown would create a logistical nightmare for West Virginia. Just planning for, and then executing, a shutdown would be a colossal waste of time and resources. Budget negotiators surely realized that, and if they don’t the citizens will give them an earful the moment the lights go out regardless of their position or political party.

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