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WV House, Senate budget plan would force state to ‘live within its means’

By RUSTY MARKS

The State Journal

Republican leaders of the West Virginia Senate and House of Delegates released a “budget framework” on Monday, March 13 that would include no more spending than last year’s budget.

“The fundamental principle is spend no more than you have,” said Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson. “The budget for too long has been chosen by those who want to raise taxes, not control spending.”

Coming on day 34 of the 83rd legislative session, Carmichael called the proposed budget plan the result of “bold, aggressive, conservative leadership.” The budget calls for spending of no more than $4.055 billion.

“The people of West Virginia can’t afford to have more money taken out of their paychecks,” said House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha.

Last year’s budget was about $4.2 billion, while the budget proposed by Gov. Jim Justice comes to about $4.5 billion. But Carmichael and Armstead said, like a family, state officials can no longer afford to live beyond their means.

But the House and Senate leaders conceded getting to a budget of $4.055 billion will not be easy, especially with a projected budget deficit estimated between $450 million and $500 million.

“We’re not talking about cuts in that sense,” said Armstead. “What we’re talking about is drawing the line.” He said it was time for state officials to hold steady and stop growing government year after year.

Carmichael said the budget will require looking at cuts in areas historically considered all but untouchable by lawmakers, including the Department of Health and Human Resources, higher education and K-12 education. But, at least as far as public education is concerned, “we’re talking about the state-level bureaucracy,” Carmichael said. “That’s where we’re going to start with these reductions.”

The Republican budget proposal so far includes:

  • eliminating Justice’s $105 million Save Our State infrastructure fund; smoothing payments to the teachers’ retirement system, saving about $43 million;
  • continuing 2 percent mid-year budget cuts implemented by former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, saving about $21 million;
  • cutting a 2 percent teacher pay raise suggested by Justice, saving another $21 million;
  • eliminating greyhound and casino modernization subsidies, saving about $24 million;
  • doing away with a $5.6 million increase in the budget for tourism advertising proposed by the governor;
  • redirecting $69 million in transfers from the Workers’ Compensation fund and lottery surplus;
  • doing away with an $11.7 million transfer to the Division of Highways; and
  • raising the beer barrel tax from $5.50 to $8, increasing revenues by $2.8 million and raising the wholesale liquor markup from 28 to 32 percent.

That would leave a revenue gap of about $150 million to make up through cuts or other measures.

“These actions will be difficult, but we owe it to our citizens to do everything we can to make their government run more efficiently without constantly asking for more money from taxpayers,” Armstead said. “Our citizens have asked us to make tough choices to get government growth under control, and this budget will do just that.”

“We fully intend to have this budget passed and onto the Governor’s desk before our 60-day session ends April 8,” Carmichael said. “The days of spending more than we can afford are over. It’s time for our government to live within its means, and this budget approach will accomplish that.”
Justice, however, was not impressed.
“Bless their hearts, but the Legislature’s framework will not save the patient,” the governor said in a statement. “What we saw today from the House and Senate only kicks the can around the block. It doesn’t give our classroom teachers a pay raise, it doesn’t increase tourism advertising, it doesn’t bring jobs and it lacks the tools to jump start our economy.
“The clock is ticking; let’s work together to pass a responsible budget that brings jobs or we will die 50th. My Save Our State plan will get us out of this budget hole and put us on a pathway to prosperity.”
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