Latest News, Opinion

Statehouse Beat: Budget deadline coming sooner than you think

The Charleston Gazette-Mail

I was somewhat flattered that folks thought Gov. Jim Justice’s new electronic clock counting down to the end of the legislative session is homage to my daily countdown tweets to a July 1 state government shutdown during last year’s budget impasse.

The House and Senate Finance chairmen pooh-poohed Justice’s effort to create a sense of urgency over the budget crisis, noting that in normal years, each house’s version of the budget bill is advanced in the final week of the session, to be finalized in a week-long extended session.

Of course, this is nothing like a normal year, when budget conferees would meet to tweak a few minor differences between accounts here and there.

Justice is an accomplished businessman, and I think he understands the budget process this year won’t be proposal, counter-proposal, and compromise. He may well have to veto a budget bill or two, as Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin did last year, before legislators get it through their knuckleheads that he means business.

Justice has laid out that there really are only two options to address the $500 million budget crisis, new taxes or catastrophic cuts to programs and services.

Legislators, meanwhile, have spent the past two years trying to find waste and excess in the state budget, with little to show for it. The interim GATE committee, directed to find $300 million in cuts, ultimately proved to be a joke.

There have been reports recently that the Legislature has uncovered $240 million in spending cuts –- not even halfway to closing the shortfall — but a closer look shows much of those proposed cuts are smoke and mirrors.

A lot of the “cuts” would be a matter of not funding new spending initiatives proposed by Justice, including $105 million for his Save Our State Fund (Justice has since proposed spreading the funding out at $35 million a year for three years), and $21 million for Justice’s proposed 2 percent pay raise for classroom teachers. The “cuts” also count continuing Tomblin’s mid-year budget reductions to “save” $25 million, but those cuts that are already built into Justice’s budget.

So the $240 million of cuts in reality is more like $75 million, and that assumes the Legislature could pull the trigger on cuts they backed away from last year, including axing state subsidies for greyhound and thoroughbred racing purses, or eliminating the Courtesy Patrol.

Likewise, nothing has been done in the way of studying the systemic changes in government that could bring substantial savings, such as consolidation of counties.

Thus, Justice is point-on in trying to promote a sense of urgency for working immediately on the state budget. July 1 will be here sooner than you think.

▪ ▪ ▪

I haven’t covered Justice long enough to know if his budget proposals are slap-dash or savvy, but I’m leaning toward the latter.

First, when he put out his budget bill, he also provided a worst-case, draconian option to make up the deficit entirely through budget cuts, requiring closing colleges and state parks and terminating 3,000 state employees, among other harsh measures.

His first budget plan included some particularly unpalatable tax hikes, including a 0.2 percent gross receipts tax and a 0.5 percent increase in the consumer sales tax.

In what almost seems like an intentional bait-and-switch, Justice last week proposed Budget 2.0, in which he greatly lowered those taxes, making up most of the difference with taxes geared to improving the health of West Virginians, an additional 50-cent a pack tax on cigarettes and a 1-cent per once tax on sugary soft drinks – both products that people would be better off not consuming.

I’m sure we’re hear the tired arguments that these taxes hit low-income residents hardest, but it’s hard to make the case when people are spending hard-earned money to buy overpriced carbonated sugar water with no nutritional value, a product that only serves to make them fat and to rot their teeth.

(When I worked at McDonald’s in high school, back in the era of disco and leisure suits, we were encouraged to push soft drink sales, since each drink cost the company 2.5 cents to produce and sold for, if I remember correctly, 30 to 40 cents –- which is what, about an 800 percent markup? There were only two sizes back then, regular (12 ounces) and large (probably about 20 ounces). Supersize had yet to be inflicted on the public.)

Likewise, Justice first proposed another raid on the state’s Rainy Day funds to close a $123 million shortfall in the current, 2016-17 budget, an action which would risk another downgrade of state bond ratings, only to “discover” that there are reappropriated surplus funds that can be used to fill that budget hole.

I say discover since, as best I can recall, I’ve been writing about the reappropriated surplus accounts for least 14 years.

Justice hasn’t said what accounts will be used, but the state Senate proportionately has the largest amount of money squirreled away, at $26.13 million – or enough to operate the Senate for more than four years with no new funds.

(Of course, using unappropriated surplus doesn’t resolve the systemic problems with the state budget, but is a more elegant way of kicking the can down the road for another year.)

▪ ▪ ▪

Unlike Secretary of State Mac Warner, who crudely came in and fired about one-third of the long-serving office staff, Auditor John McCuskey has slowly been making personnel changes since taking office in January.

To wit, Friday was the last day for longtime communications director Justin Southern, who is going to work for Wells Fargo Advisors.

▪ ▪ ▪

Finally, curious if the new governor has been using the state plane, I pulled the flight logs for the King Air since Jan. 1, and found that he hasn’t set foot on board. (Then again, if you owned private jets, would you fly on a prop plane?)

In fact, excluding a flight to get maintenance service by the Aviation Division, the plane has only had four flights so far this year.

On Jan. 15, the eve of Justice’s inauguration, then-Gov. Tomblin and first lady Joanne Tomblin flew to Lewisburg and back.

Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher flew to Martinsburg and Clarksburg and back on Jan. 27, while Transportation Secretary Tom Smith flew to Washington, D.C. and back on Feb. 28.

The other state plane, the Cessna Caravan, has been used even less, with all of one maintenance flight logged this year.

Reach Phil Kabler at [email protected], 304 348-1220, or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

– See more at:

Comments are closed.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

And get our latest content in your inbox

Invalid email address