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Editorial: Lost in the math, two divergent views of state government

From The Exponent Telegram of Clarksburg:

When discussing a $4 billion budget and its $500 million shortfall, it’s easy to get caught up in the math.

It’s also easy to get caught up in the political rhetoric.

Make no mistake, Republicans want us to believe that state government can function on a reduced budgetary diet. They want to roll back spending to below current levels, based on this year’s tax revenues.

Gov. Jim Justice, a Democrat who once was a Republican and is known as a shrewd businessman, says the budget can’t be cut any more. He believes the state must invest in itself to lure other investors.

So far, what has unfolded in Charleston — and around the state, for that matter — is a whole lot of political posturing — enough that some folks are wondering if the two sides will ever come together.

And Justice’s comments about making lawmakers work for free during the special session to deal with the budget, as well as lawmakers’ subsequent agreement to that, are nothing more than attempts to play to the masses instead of addressing the problems.

Listen, lawmakers have known for the past several years that they (and their predecessors) have been pushing these budget issues “to the next year.” Well, the old adage about paying the fiddler has to come to pass at some point. And that point appears nearer than ever before.

Quite simply, if lawmakers truly want to advance West Virginia — both now and in the future — the budget problems need to be fixed.

Justice’s solutions have been mostly through proposed revenue “enhancements,” which is just a long version of that dirty word — “taxes.”

Republicans have countered with their current proposal of holding expenses to this year’s revenue levels, but haven’t provided much in the way of details about how they would do that.

Some steps have been taken, but not without a hue and cry from those affected. A bill to cut regional education service agencies (RESAs) is advancing, as well as another to cut the Courtesy Patrol program. Combined, that will save about $8 million. But there’s still anywhere from $100 to $200 million left to trim, and that’s based on Justice’s budget — not the Republicans’.

With so much of the state’s budget set aside for education (said to be roughly 65 percent between public and higher education), those entities will have to be trimmed in some fashion.

But the mere speculation of that caused West Virginia University’s Board of Governors to meet in executive session on Monday, and other entities potentially affected are already gearing up for the expected lobbying effort to preserve funding.

Without examining all the nuts and bolts of the budget, it is difficult to pinpoint areas that can be trimmed or eliminated.

But we do believe that the state’s Department of Education has to be a ripe target, in as much as the goal should be more local control of school matters.

Also, veteran education administrators have told us there is room for cuts, with one suggesting the department could be trimmed by as much as two-thirds with little to no impact on the education of children.

For the record, the state Department of Education lists 675 employees with a payroll of almost $40 million. That doesn’t include other expenses, such as vehicles, travel and the like.

Trimming that budget in half would add a chunk of the savings needed to right the state’s budget. And perhaps those educators affected would return to the classroom, helping to fill the nearly 700 vacancies that exist in the state’s teacher ranks.

But for that to happen, lawmakers need to make sure of the outcome, which leads us back to the most disappointing aspect of the current situation.

The majority of lawmakers in Charleston have been there for several years, if not longer. They’ve known the problems they would face.

How much time and effort have they spent educating themselves so they can make the best decisions? How much are they relying on faulty data supplied by groups with agendas, sometimes being set at the national level?

State lawmakers are running out of time to find the “right size” for West Virginia’s government.

Most would agree there are cuts that can be made. But there is also validity in Gov. Justice’s claims that additional spending is needed in some areas to help boost the state’s ability to attract new business, which leads to more jobs and more taxpaying residents.

The status quo has got to go, but the pathway is far from clear.

Now is the time for civility to prevail — for Gov. Justice and legislative leaders to set aside their party politics and find common ground.

Neither side may leave the meeting feeling victorious on all of their points. But we have to hope they can find common ground to lift the state out of its current economic abyss.

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