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Editorial: Getting Back To Basics on Budget

Earlier this year, Gov. Jim Justice described state government finances as “an 18-carat dog’s mess.”

Now, both houses of the West Virginia Legislature have approved budget bills for the coming fiscal year. The measures are substantially different, but they — and the governor’s budget proposal — have one thing in common:

They are one big mess. It is doubtful they can be cleaned up in the two days left for legislators to approve a budget.

Quick scans of budget bills passed this week by the House of Delegates and state Senate made it clear both proposals need work.

To cite just one flaw: The Senate budget bill calls for $4.1 billion in general revenue spending. From the standpoint of restraint, that is not bad; it would require only a few tax increases.

But the Senate’s highway spending plan provides $5 million for the controversial Courtesy Patrol program. It is budgeted at just $3 million this year. It should not be in the budget at all, much less with a 66 percent increase.

At least the Senate budget comes close to avoiding tax increases. At $4.1 billion, it is only about $50 million higher than the amount of revenue state officials expect during the coming fiscal year.

But HB 2018, the House budget bill, calls for $4.24 billion in general revenue spending. That would require higher taxes.

Problems in the state Senate and House of Delegates budget plans can be corrected, though it is doubtful the current schedule — lawmakers have only until midnight Sunday to finish their work — would allow that.

Justice’s proposal is fundamentally bad, however.

Given the governor’s frequent changes of mind involving the budget, it is difficult to know from one day to the next just how much he wants legislators to approve. At one point, however, he was asking for a $4.5 billion budget.

That would require about $450 million in tax increases.

Clearly, legislators need to take more time on the budget. It should begin with the basic premise that, as members of the House Liberty Caucus have emphasized, the overall tax burden on Mountain State residents and businesses cannot be increased.

Justice himself agreed with that, prior to being elected governor. As he put it then, “I don’t think there is any way in the world you can raise taxes on our people.”Precisely.

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