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Delegates discuss status of state budget

By ANDREA LANNOM

The Register-Herald

CHARLESTON — Following over three hours of debate in Thursday’s House floor session, a Raleigh County delegate asked about the status of the budget and what assurance he has that it will be done in a timely fashion.

Delegate Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, said the session is nearly halfway done and expressed concern that the state is in a “slow-motion collision course to failure.”

“We are over a quarter of a way through the session and here we are,” Bates said. “We have been here three and a half hours and I have yet to see a solution to close a half-a-billion dollar hole in the budget.”

Bates asked fellow lawmakers, “What is the plan?”

“Is the plan cuts? Is the plan taxes? Or is it some combination thereof,” Bates said. “A majority of people at home understand how bad things are. They can accept any combination thereof. What they won’t accept and what West Virginia cannot afford is spending 37 days on all sorts of other things and not getting the job done.”

Bates said last year, the special session made it to two weeks before a government shutdown before a balanced budget was reached.

“This year, we’ve started a month later … and this year we have a $450 million problem,” Bates said. “We have little to no short-term money. There is no consensus on revenue measures. And this year, the Senate is going down the yellow brick road to Kansas in its search for the Emerald City to eliminate the income tax, the largest source of revenue in the budget.”

Bates asked what assurance he could have that a budget would be passed, saying Gov. Jim Justice has already proposed three plans.

“Governor Justice is a big man with big ideas,” Bates said. “Some say he’s a grizzly bear and I’m a koala bear.”

Mentioning Justice’s use of white boards, Bates pulled a white board of his own, saying if it worked for the governor, maybe it would work for him too. He wrote the numbers 37, which represented the days left of the session, and 127, which represented the days until the next fiscal year.

“Ladies and gentleman, the clock is ticking,” Bates said. “Let’s work together to get this done.”

Delegate Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, also spoke about the budget Thursday, saying although he didn’t have a white board he wanted Bates to add the number $450 million on the board, representing the approximate shortfall for the 2018 fiscal year.

“It means belt tightening, smaller government, right-size, responsible government that treats the taxpayer fairly. These are things we heard on the campaign trail including from Gov. Justice,” Cowles said. “I agree the governor is a big man with big ideas but his proposals so far are big tax increases.”

Delegate Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, said the budget Justice has proposed for next year is $300 million greater than the current fiscal year and is $450 million greater than the current revenue projection.

“The governor proposes to fill everything with new revenue,” Nelson said. “Monday, he released Budget 2.0 but still, no additional details other than just reshuffling revenue recommendations. To date, we have received few recommendations for efficiencies or cost savings in the budget.”

Nelson, who chairs the House Committee on Finance, said the committee spends the first 30 days of session hearing from state agencies, which is standard practice. This year, he said there are 14 work groups that have two to five finance committee members on them. These workgroups spend time going through the budget “like never before.”

He said the work groups ask questions of whether to continue expenditures for agencies at the same, lower or higher levels and also ask whether staffing is correct within the departments and what services are and should be provided. He said all of that comes up to the base amount that they have to come up with for the agencies.

“Only after sufficient time has been spent analyzing state agency budgets to determine what structural shortfall exists — only then or after that should we consider revenue measures,” Nelson said.

Nelson said his goal is to have the budget bill before the House and approved before April 8, the last day of session.

“That’s never been done,” Nelson said. “But I’m committed to that.”

He said in addition to the budget, the committee has three other goals. One is to resolve the about $100 million shortfall in the 2017 budget. The second is to examine special revenue accounts with excess balances to re-appropriate to replenish the Rainy Day Fund. Third, he said, the committee will deal with bills to address funding for infrastructure needs.

Delegate John O’Neal, R-Raleigh, said he wanted to remind members of the House that anyone can introduce a budget bill.

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