A lot rides on budget for W.Va. sportsmen and outdoor lovers

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — As I peck out this piece on my office computer, members of a House-Senate Conference committee are trying to reach consensus on a version of the proposed revenue plan all sides can live with.  The meeting has been postponed three times today because of the “triggers” to engage a cut in the state’s income tax.

But as I write, I wonder what triggers will be pulled if they can’t work this out in the next 21 days and state government is shut down.   We’ve never had that in West Virginia and a lot of people are unsure of exactly what would happen.    A bill has been introduced aimed at protecting the benefits and status of employees in the event of a furlough, and even it is yet to be approved.  What’s more, it’s unknown how much it might change from what Governor Jim Justice submitted to lawmakers.

Since I cover the outdoors on this page, I was contemplating what a government shutdown will do to those who enjoy West Virginia’s outdoor activities.  Here’s a grim look at my flow of conscious thoughts.

For starters, the shutdown, if we have one, will happen July 1st.  That’s a Saturday, but consider the Fourth of July–the following Tuesday– is the most popular time for tourists to visit West Virginia State Parks.   Those who had reservations for the weekend–usually made a year in advance–can say goodbye to those. They’ll be spending the 4th somewhere else–possibly in some other state.  Vendors who have contracts with the State Park system will find the door slammed on their investment on the weekend which makes the most money of the year.  One can only imagine the breach of contract potential it will create for lawyers to chew on in the courts for months to come.

As far as I can tell, every state government agency has been making contingency plans for the shutdown scenario.  The work involves determining the “essential” personnel.   Certainly there are plenty of political jokes which can be made about the term “essential personnel”, unfortunately we’re not joking.  This is real.   What would be the essential personnel of the Division of Natural Resources?

I suppose the Natural Resources Police are going to be essential.   One figures they’ll definitely be on the job, providing security to all of the state installations which will  be idled by the closing of state government.   Somebody has to feed the trout at the hatcheries and those animals in the pens at the West Virginia Wildlife Center need to eat whether there’s a budget or not.   I would hope at least one person will there every day.   Nobody will be enjoying a State Park, but the sewer system has to be properly maintained.   It becomes a difficult job determining who is “essential” and “non-essential” in the scenario.   What’s more, they’ll be working, but for at least the time being drawing no pay.

Which brings us to a much more frightening scenario for the future of the agency.   There are 820 full time Division of Natural Resources employees.  There are roughly 700 part time and seasonal workers.   The part-timers will be laid off for sure, but of those 820 full time employees what will happen.  Without passage of a furlough protection bill, their entire career may be in jeopardy.   Many of those workers, 18.4 percent to be exact, are eligible to retire.  The percentage grows to 33 percent of those who are in positions of management.

As it has been explained to me without the furlough protection legislation all non-essential employees are sent home.  When the budget is passed, they would likely return but without their tenure or accrued vacation, sick leave and other benefits.  Essentially those employees, some who have been on the job for two or three decades, will return with the status of a new state worker and all previous accumulated time and seniority is eliminated.     Salaries, which aren’t all that robust to begin with, are based on tenure in most cases.  Will those workers endure a pay cut as well as the indefinite lack of a paycheck?

My guess is the 18.4 percent of employees who can retire, will retire on June 30th.  It doesn’t take a retirement planning expert to determine if you’re about to lose all you have worked for if you don’t take it right now….you take it right now.   Those who aren’t eligible to retire, or worse are less than a year away from retirement eligibility, would be the real losers.

Sportsmen will suffer an amazing loss of institutional knowledge among those who make game and fish decisions. Lands we enjoy for hunting, fishing, and camping will sit empty and inaccessible during the busiest time of the year.  As tight as things are in the State Parks budget already, they might not ever recover.

It remains to be seen if any of the scenario will play out.  Conventional wisdom would tell you lawmakers do not want such a mess hanging over their heads when the election rolls around next year.  But without a budget and a furlough package, in the next 21 days, the worst case scenario might be worse than anybody thought.