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Central W.Va. lawmakers discuss state budget bill

By Victoria L. Cann

The Exponent Telegram of Clarksburg

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — The state Legislature finally sent a budget bill to Gov. Jim Justice on Friday night, but local lawmakers aren’t exactly excited about the spending plan.

The $4.225 billion budget would reduce state spending by roughly $85 million compared to the current fiscal year.

The budget includes no tax increases, no cuts in public school funding and no reduction in Medicaid funding. The spending plan does reduce funding for state colleges and universities, but it avoids the 11 percent cut proposed in an earlier state Senate budget blueprint.

Sen. Doug Facemire, D-Braxton, said lawmakers “just kicked the can down the road” with passage of the budget, doing nothing to fix the state’s fiscal troubles.

“We cut higher education, tourism and basically across the board. We’re going to go through the same thing next year, and it’s really sad,” Facemire said.

He said a proposal to raise the sales tax from 6 percent to 6.5 percent would have fixed many of the state’s fiscal problems.

“By adding half a percent of sales tax, we could’ve had a surplus next year instead of a deficit. If you had added half a percent, tax would be $5 on a $1,000 purchase — that’s how minute it is,” Facemire said.

The budget passed Friday will get the state through the next fiscal year, but it creates a “pretty big hole” that lawmakers will have to deal with when they return to the Capitol for the next regular session in January, he said.

“With the budget that was passed, we’ll be $300-350 million in the hole next year,” Facemire said. “No one wants to raise taxes, but we haven’t raised them for 16 years. We eliminated the food tax, lowered the corporate net tax, But when you’re in the minority, you voice your opinion and watch the majority decide.”

House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said he voted against the budget because it does “some bad things” for West Virginia.

“It makes pretty significant cuts across the board to all colleges and universities, as well as our technical and community colleges,” he said.

“The reason that’s so bad is because this is the fourth or fifth year in a row we’ve cut colleges and universities. It’s getting to the point where they are going to lay off people or reduce the programs they are able to offer,” Miley said

He said that instead of cutting funds for colleges and education, the state should be doubling down on higher education.

“The problem is with this particular budget — the Senate and House leadership couldn’t come to an agreement on where the priorities ought to be for the budget,” he said. “Another problem we will be revisiting when we return in January for the following year’s budget is the lack of political will to raise revenue.”

No one likes to raise taxes, but the state can’t cut its way to prosperity, Miley said.

He noted that at least the budget protects funding for Medicaid, which is “desperately needed” by so many West Virginians.

Del. Danny Hamrick, R-Harrison, said it was a positive thing that the Senate and House were able to pass a balanced budget.

“It did take some time. The House and Senate were able to stand their ground in really different ways,” he said. “We were able to avoid a budge with massive tax increases that the governor was going for all along.”

Hamrick said the governor did get approval for his plan to fix the state’s roads. And the budget and revenue bill won’t make it harder for the state’s low-income families to get by he added.

“Overall, I think it’s a positive thing,” Hamrick said. “There are some increases in DMV fees and an increase in the gas tax, but I voted against that bill.

“I did vote for the budget. It does hurt when you have to make cuts, but that’s what the Republican majority was elected to do — to live within our means and spend the money we have.”

Del. Richard Iaquinta, D-Harrison, said the funding cuts to higher education point can only hurt the state.

“We have made cuts to education for the last several years that’s hurt our college attendance and our community colleges and technical schools,” he said. “As we’re looking to build a better state, those are the areas that we have to emphasize more so because of the economics and cost of going to school and furthering education.”

Iaquinta said that although lawmakers made compromises on revenue and spending, there’s still not enough money to do what’s needed to make the state more economically competitive.

“You can’t cut your way into financial security. Cuts hurt the state, and we need to do a better job at increasing revenue wherever we possibly can,” he said. “It’s frustrating for everyone involved to reach an agreement that could’ve been reached at 60 days.”

Staff writer Victoria L. Cann can be reached at (304) 626-1409 or [email protected]. Follow me on Twitter @vcann_theet

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