From The Times West Virginia:
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has a memory of the past as he attempts to be a leader in building a brighter future for the state.
That memory involves last spring and summer.
It’s a scenario — an extended special session of the Legislature — that must not be repeated.
It was June 2016 when then-Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed a budget bill for the next fiscal year that averted a state government shutdown on July 1. There was a $270 million budget gap, caused largely by steeply declining revenues.
It took a budget veto and a 17-day special session that cost taxpayers $595,000 before lawmakers passed a budget that increased taxes on cigarettes, e-cigarettes and other tobacco products to produce $98 million a year. That was added to program cuts, money retrieved from agency accounts and $65 million from the state’s Rainy Day fund to balance the West Virginia budget and end a 92-day impasse.
This legislative session, the challenge is even greater. West Virginia is facing a shortfall of about $500 million for the next fiscal year. Moody’s Investors Service last month also lowered the state’s general obligation debt rating.
The answer is for the Democratic governor and the Republican-led House and Senate to make some extremely tough decisions on cuts and revenue before the current session ends on April 8.
Last week, Justice announced the launch of a countdown clock which he says is a reminder to legislators to reach a balanced budget soon.
The clock, which can be found at www.governor.wv.gov/clock/ and in the office’s reception room, counts down to the end of session.
“The clock is ticking; the session is almost halfway finished and the Legislature still hasn’t come up with a budget,” Justice said. “I’ve already released two plans that put West Virginia on a pathway to prosperity. The budget crisis won’t be solved by wasting time. I want the people of West Virginia to realize that the Legislature is on the clock and needs to get moving. The last thing we need is a long special session that wastes $35,000 a day.”
He’s also pushing for legislation to cap the amount lawmakers could earn during a special session to deal with the budget. This bill would mean the most a member of the Legislature could make would be $750 for the special session.
“Our lawmakers wasted $600,000 last year because they couldn’t come together to pass a budget on time,” Justice said.
“We’ve got to be more responsible than that. If it takes the Legislature umpteen weeks to pass a budget, they won’t get paid beyond five days under my plan. The people of West Virginia expect action to fix the budget crisis, and the pay cap will ensure we aren’t wasting time and money to do the job we were all elected to do.”
We know the decisions won’t be easy.
Justice said he’s open to listen to any cuts the Legislature comes up with, but said he doesn’t want to “put a dagger in the heart of West Virginia.”
“If we constrict more, more people are going to leave and when more people leave, revenue goes down and we’re faced with the problem again,” he said.
Increased revenue must also be part of the solution, but higher taxes and fees can be both necessary and painful. Lawmakers must also deal with the fact that some can be avoided by consumers because so much of the state’s population is within easy commuting distance to neighboring states Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky.
Tough decisions, for sure, but they must be made on a deadline that is quickly approaching. Failure would be an expense — both monetary and in the price of indecision — West Virginia can’t afford.