By Matt Young, WV Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – The Senate Finance Committee, on Monday, heard budget proposals from representatives of both the W.Va. Department of Commerce, as well as the W.Va. Department of Economic Development.
James Bailey, cabinet secretary of the Department of Commerce – which encompasses the divisions of Forestry, Labor, and Workforce WV, among others – was the first to present.
“Our fiscal year (FY) 2024 budget is a relatively flat budget, with the exception of the across-the-board raises for all the agencies,” Bailey said. “Also there’s a few minor improvements that will go into general revenue.”
According to Bailey, the department’s current workforce consists of, “Approximately 2,200 total FTEs (full time equivalents), and about 1,700 are filled. There are about 530 vacancies.”
Bailey noted that there are several one-time and ongoing appropriation requests for “general improvements,” adding, “These (improvement requests) are the exception to the flat budget.”
Among the requests referenced by Bailey were numerous temporary staffing needs, funding for “operational expenditures associated with the new campground” at Coopers Rock State Forest, and a $5 per hour increase for 59 employees to satisfy lease terms with the Army Corps of Engineers.
“Due to an executive order signed by President Biden, we are required to pay a $15 minimum wage,” Bailey explained. “This affects 59 of our employees. We took a real long look at that, and there’s no other way around it.”
Also included in the FY 2024 budget is a $66.4 million request by Gov. Jim Justice for the Division of Natural Resources.
“What speaks volumes is the investment that the legislature has made into our parks – $150 million over the last four years,” Bailey said. “We have seen tremendous returns on those investments.”
Bailey said that the funds requested by the governor will be used for the creation of two new State Parks, additional campsites and lodging in “high demand” areas, and the installation of ADA-compliant playgrounds. Bailey further stated that an additional 45 miles would be added to the Elk River Trail system.
“And we’re already in the process of constructing what will be 30 miles of bike trails at Cacapon (State Park),” Bailey added.
Regarding the location of the two proposed State Parks, Bailey said: “I can’t publicly go into detail, but we are working with private partners to solicit bids. I believe that if it was known that the bids were for State Parks, they would increase dramatically.”
Mitch Carmichael, cabinet secretary of the Department of Economic Development (DED), was next to present. Carmichael began by telling the committee, “As you know, we’re (DED) roughly $12 million – which is one-quarter of one-percent of the general revenue budget.”
“We’re a very small agency,” Carmichael added. “From an economic perspective, though, we’re making a lot of progress.”
According to Carmichael, the $6.3 billion West Virginia “tracked with investments” in FY 2022 was more than the previous four years combined, noting, “That’s a great testament to the economic activity that’s happening in West Virginia.”
Carmichael explained that the DED is comprised of seven “primary” divisions, including: West Virginia USA, the Office of Energy, CAD (Community Advancement and Development), Business and Industrial Development, SBDC (Small Business Development Center) West Virginia, WVfilm, and the West Virginia Broadband Enhancement Council. These divisions oversee everything from business relocation and marketing, to infrastructure evaluation and enhancement.
“When we talk about our general revenue perspective, we’ve been very frugal with your funds,” Carmichael said, before adding that there has been a decrease of approximately 30% in general revenue appropriation to the DED since FY 2019.
“You can see that we have adhered to the concept of flatline budgets, or – in essence – decreasing budgets,” Carmichael added.
As of Jan. 1, Carmichael reported 13 department vacancies out of 113 appropriated FTEs in his agency.
Speaking of overall employment in West Virginia, Carmichael said West Virginia is recovering from the impact of COVID on its employment opportunities and more people are working in the state.
“I will point out that from … our low point of our COVID employment numbers until today, we are 120,000 more people on the payroll (of West Virginia businesses, industries and agencies) …,” Carmichael noted, explaining that those employment growth numbers must be caveated because of the COVID workforce reductions, but he said that increase in the workforce from 2020 to today is the largest increase in the state’s history.
In closing, Carmichael advised the committee that there are “about 130,000” new or upgraded broadband connections across the state since 2020.
At the conclusion of Carmichael’s presentation, Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, added, “We are trending in the right direction.”