Gazette editorial: A better budget approach for WV future

Charleston Gazette-Mail editorial

New Gov. Jim Justice has modified his “Save Our State” plan to compromise with foot-dragging Republican legislators on solving the budget nightmare.

Justice updated his plan to soften some business tax hikes — making up for them by boosting taxes on cigarettes and sugary soft drinks. We hope his compromise works.

Republican legislative leaders responded responsibly. House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, and Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, put out a joint statement acknowledging that the governor heard the concerns of their constituents.

West Virginia’s government is on the brink of bankruptcy — falling perhaps $200 million short for the current fiscal year, then possibly $500 million in the next year, starting July 1, then $700 million the following year. All three major bond rating services have downgraded the state’s credit rating.

Many Republicans who control the Legislature have sworn “no new taxes” vows, meaning they won’t raise revenue to restore the Mountain State’s economic health.

Since the state’s Constitution requires a balanced budget, failure to gain new revenue would force disastrous cutbacks in state services — which already have been slashed $400 million in recent years.

If public schools and colleges are eroded, the future of young West Virginians will be threatened. If mine safety inspections or State Police protection are curtailed, danger will increase. If public radio and television are ditched, the state’s culture will be degraded. If state parks and forests are mothballed, tourism could nosedive. If other valuable services are lost, West Virginia will suffer.

Justice hopes to gain about $400 million in revenue while imposing only $26.6 million in further “responsible” government cuts. His drive also includes a bond sale for a large road-building project in Southern counties, which he says would provide 48,000 construction jobs. And he hopes to create a business park to store backup data for the federal government.

“If all we do is try to balance the budget, we’re going to die,” Justice warned. As for further slashes to government, he added: “Do you think more people will come here if we cut more? Not a God’s chance on this planet.”

When the 2017 Legislature finally produces a balanced budget, will it cripple the state government — or shift the tax burden more onto lower-income West Virginians, a frequent GOP goal? Will the governor’s hope for 48,000 road-building jobs be scuttled?

West Virginia is in a crisis. Legislators have a solemn obligation to keep the government functional. The current session will test whether they perform their duty.

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