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Changes sought by Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns for West Virginia budget process

By JOSELYN KING

The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register

WHEELING, W.Va.  — After two straight years of tough, down-to-the-wire budget talks in the West Virginia Legislature, Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns says it’s time to change the process.

Sen. Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio
His idea involves giving the Legislative Audit Office more authority in crafting the state’s annual spending and directing them to work year-round on the state budget.

The Legislature passed a 2018 budget late Friday, and Gov. Jim Justice has until Saturday to sign or veto the spending plan. If he takes no action by that time, the bill becomes law.

Justice announced plans Tuesday afternoon to provide a public statement about the budget at 9:15 a.m. today.

Ferns, R-Ohio, said first thing Monday morning he began making calls to the Senate Finance Committee staff regarding next year’s budget.

“We have to start planning now, and that’s the challenging part,” he said. “The system doesn’t work well unless the Legislature and the governor agree on a plan before there is debate on the budget. If we don’t, we’re hamstrung. The problem is we don’t receive a budget estimate until the governor presents his State of the State address, and we can’t plan ahead.”

Ferns wants the Legislative Audit Office to be able to work year-round on budget numbers and clarify budget requests being made by state agencies.

Under the current budget process, the Department of Revenue — at the direction of the governor — provides state leaders with revenue projections for the upcoming fiscal year. The budget is then set to that amount, according to Jacque Bland, communications director for the West Virginia Senate.

Typically, immediately following the governor’s State of the State address on the first day of the 60-day regular legislative session, the House and the Senate gavel back in to receive the proposed budget. In the following days and weeks, representatives of state executive agencies meet with House and Senate finance committee members to present their wants and needs.

“Additionally, there are almost always pieces of legislation that will be passed that will have a direct effect on the budget, and those have to be factored in,” Bland said. “All of that information is taken into consideration, and the finance committees of both bodies will present their budget bills and go through the normal process of voting and passing (a state budget).”

If differences arise, these are worked out by a House-Senate conference committee. If needed, the conference committee typically meets in a three-day extended session immediately after the regular session.

Ferns sees the Legislative Auditor’s Office assuming a similar role to that of the federal Congressional Budget Office — an independent, nonpartisan entity that produces analyses of budgetary and economic issues to support the federal budget process.

“The way it is now we have to rely on the executive branch for budget estimates, and state agencies telling us what they want their budget to be,” Ferns said. “We have no tool to help us evaluate if the figures they give us are accurate. We are given a budget by the governor, and we work off of that. If we are expected to challenge the spending numbers, we need a different system.”

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