CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Don’t expect a budget battle at the state Legislature this year.
“It’s an election year. I think the budget is going to be quiet,” said Delegate Mick Bates, D-Raleigh. “I don’t see big budget fights.”
That hasn’t necessarily been the case the past few years.
State revenue problems just a few years ago had lawmakers looking for cuts or ways to bring in more money. Last year, there was enough to promise and deliver on average 5 percent pay increases for most state employees.
But this year, it appears, the budget situation will be neither crisis nor cup runneth over.
This week on MetroNews’ “Talkline,” state Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy said officials are preparing for a flat budget.
Hardy said that likely means there won’t be latitude for broad-based pay raises for the coming year.
“We have recommended to the governor, at this time based on the numbers that we have that we don’t see that there’s any way he can build a pay raise into the budget,” Hardy said.
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Lawmakers will begin considering the budget this coming week as the regular 60-day session kicks off on Wednesday. West Virginia’s General Revenue fund is about $4.7 billion.
Legislators discussed the state’s budget picture on Friday during the West Virginia Press Association’s annual Legislative Lookahead event.
Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair also doesn’t believe there will be much conflict over the budget. He said he expects to again churn one out within the 60-day session, rather than requiring more time.
“I would like to recommend we go about this with more of a scalpel,” said Blair, R-Berkeley.
He described wanting some time to assess the financial effects of the pay raises of the past couple of years. But he and other lawmakers left open the possibility of pay raises for some specific needs, such as encouraging the retention of child protective services workers.
Halfway through the current fiscal year, state collections are behind estimates by about $33 million. The past few months have been about on target, though.
“I’m not stressed by that number,” Blair said at Legislative Lookahead.
The Justice administration a few months ago talked about preparing for mid-year cuts of about $100 million while also possibly trimming $100 million out of the budget for the coming fiscal year. In recent months, though, there has been less talk of those steps.
Stagnant coal exports and low natural gas prices have combined for lower-than-anticipated severance tax collections.
“We probably could have seen we were going to be a little bit behind this year,” said Senator Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha.
“Hopefully things will get better in the second half of this year, but if not we’ll have some difficult decisions.”