Make tax hikes the last resort

An editorial from The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register

WHEELING, W.Va. — During normal times – whatever that is in West Virginia – Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s call for nearly $131.5 million a year in higher taxes would have provoked a fiery, no-way reaction from Republicans. But times are very tough in the state treasurer’s office, with a budget shortfall of as much as $400 million predicted for the coming fiscal year.

That prompted some GOP legislators to say they’d think about the governor’s proposal.

Fine. But let’s talk spending cuts first. Only after state officials have dulled their knives on existing state agency budgets should they begin looking at tax increases.

Tomblin’s proposal, made during his State of the State speech last week, was to raise an additional $71.5 million a year by increasing taxes on tobacco products, and another $60 million by rescinding the sales tax exemption on phone bills.

One aspect of the plan, the tobacco tax’s impact on retailers in counties bordering other states, does not appear to be much of a concern here. Even with the governor’s increase, the state tax on a pack of cigarettes would go to $1, less than the $1.60 charged in Ohio and Pennsylvania. That could hurt stores in many other counties, however; Virginia’s tax is 30 cents a pack, while Kentucky’s is 60 cents.

As for the telecommunications tax, state officials say ours is one of just 10 states that do not have it now.

Still, conservatives – both Democrat and Republican – in the Legislature have been right to shy away from new taxes for several years. In West Virginia, the trend during the past decade has been just the opposite.

But something has to be done to keep the state budget in balance, not to mention to address other needs.

To that end, lawmakers should work with Tomblin on a fine-toothed-comb look at spending. Is all of it in the state’s $4 billion-plus general fund budget really necessary? Mountain State families frequently are forced to find ways to reduce spending. Surely state government can do the same.

Once that process has been completed, legislators may have to look at higher taxes. But they should be a last resort, not the first option.

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