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Opinion: Budget can’t be balanced on backs of state’s smal businesses

When former Gov. Gaston Caperton took office, he stared down the potential of a $300 million budget deficit and called the Legislature into a special session to address it during his inaugural address.

The results weren’t pretty — namely, a $392 million tax package that caused the public to lash out at his about-face on a campaign pledge not to raise taxes. The state saw a food tax and 5-cent-per-gallon gasoline tax. While the political newcomer’s popularity sank, the state’s budget stabilized.

During Gov. Jim Justice’s State of the State address last week, West Virginians looked to another highly successful businessman and novice politician for answers to the hard questions of what to do about our state’s projected $500 million budget deficit. After combing through the hyperbole and yarns in Justice’s speech, not to mention the details in the budget document itself — the answers were $450 million in new taxes.

Everyone was expecting that there would be some tax increases — an increase in DMV fees and the 10-cent increase in the gas tax should lead to new construction jobs. That’s a good thing.

But several of Justice’s proposals were disappointing. The amount of revenue enhancements (a euphemism for tax increases) proposed for small businesses to shoulder would cripple many of our local economic engines that provide most of the local jobs.

What about tax reform? What happened to the promise of right-sizing government? Justice’s chief of staff teased cuts of $300 million or $600 million. What we got was $26.6 million and a salesman’s pitch.

Justice’s “alternative budget,” lurking over his proposals like a bogeyman or in this case “Frankenstein” no one wants to approach, threatens $450 million in cuts and 3,000 lost jobs. Should West Virginia Public Broadcasting lose all of its funding? Probably not. How about cutting the subsidies for horse and dog breeders? Maybe.

The conservative Cardinal Institute praised the “alternative budget,” saying many of its cuts were highlighted in its “Wild, Wasteful West Virginia” report, such as ending the Tobacco Education Program.

Prior to the State of the State, Senate President Mitch Carmichael had said the Legislature would serve as Justice’s wingman, supporting the necessary hard decisions. After the speech, Carmichael said it was clear the Legislature now has to take the reins and do the heavy lifting in finding the spending cuts necessary to stabilize the state budget without the need for as many tax increases.

The majority of citizens in this state expected more cuts than tax increases. Selecting the proper balance of cuts will be where real leadership must rise to the occasion. Justice has garnered plenty of goodwill to date and doesn’t need to placate every pocket of the population, but he has done a commendable job so far in keeping all the state’s usual political players in check.

As Caperton concluded his 1989 inaugural address, he told the state that “crisis demands the best from each of us and tolerates nothing less.” The Mountain State has found itself in crisis again, and we must not tolerate a budget that is anything less than our governor’s and legislators’ best collective effort.


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