By LACIE PIERSON
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Balancing West Virginia’s budget will require broadening the state’s tax base, privatizing some government operations and making significant cuts in state spending, according to West Virginia House of Delegates Speaker Tim Armstead.
Armstead, R-Kanawha, hosted a small breakfast meeting with media Thursday morning in his office at the state Capitol, where he said issuing cuts to state government won’t be pleasant.
“Those cuts are not going to be easy, and they aren’t going to be mild,” Armstead said.
When the GOP-led West Virginia Legislature convenes for its regular session Wednesday, Feb. 8, its members will be tasked with closing an estimated $500 million deficit in its budget for the next year.
Armstead said he felt West Virginians are taxed too heavily and couldn’t bear the burden of an additional tax. That means legislators would have to look at big-picture items and make tough decisions about making cuts, he said.
“I think the budget is the big-ticket item this year, but I don’t want to crowd out other things,” Armstead said.
Some of those big-picture initiatives included refinancing pensions and providing more flexibility to county school districts in how they spend money they receive through the school aid formula.
“The school aid formula, we have some limitations on being able to alter that when it comes to how the money is divided up by county,” he said. “When it gets to the counties, there’s some flexibility we can provide. If superintendents have that flexibility, I think they can live with less.”
The privatization of some government services also is a cost-saving measure on Armstead’s agenda, although he did not mention any specific services that could be privatized.
“Any area where the state is competing with the private sector – those are where we start,” he said.
Armstead also said he wants the state’s tax structure to be reformed to broaden the tax base and eliminate exemptions, saying tax reform was a long-term solution to the state’s budget woes.
“We’re going to dig into areas we haven’t dug into before,” Armstead said. “It’s not going to be a good experience for everyone.”
Education also was a substantial talking point for Armstead, who said he agreed with audits of the state’s education system that showed West Virginia’s system is top heavy and over-regulated.
“I’ve heard that on the ground,” Armstead said. “I’ve talked with county superintendents and principals, and I’m getting the same messages from all of them. They need some flexibility. They need some autonomy, from the superintendent standpoint, to run their school systems more efficiently without Charleston telling them how to do it.”
Armstead also talked about the work the Republican-led legislature has done in legal reform – something he wants to continue by creating an intermediate court to facilitate a better appeals process.
When it came to dealing with substance abuse, Armstead said he wanted to take action in three ways: preventative education, more treatment facilities, and more means to identify and incarcerate those who are bringing drugs into the state and dealing them.
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