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Gov. Jim Justice has asked lawmakers to do a politically unpopular thing this state Legislative session — raise taxes. But legislative leaders say they are still on the hunt for cuts to state government. Both the House and Senate Finance committees held meetings Thursday and heard from the Governor’s budget team, who attempted to convince lawmakers to see things the governor’s way.
On Wednesday night, Gov. Jim Justice presented lawmakers with his plan to balance the 2018 budget. The latest estimates from state revenue officials show there’s a nearly $500 million budget gap in the upcoming fiscal year, and in short, Justice wants to close it by increasing taxes and making some minor cuts. His proposal would create $450 million in new taxes and cut government spending almost $27 million.
But during his State of the State Address, the Governor’s Office also released what they are calling an alternative budget — a list of government agencies that would have to be cut if lawmakers choose not to raise any taxes this session. Justice’s alternative budget would close colleges and universities, the Department of Veterans’ Assistance, and end most senior services, among many other things. That alternative plan concerned the Minority Chairman of House Finance Delegate Brent Boggs, D-Braxton.
“When we’re faced with this kind of a deficit, we can’t possibly cut state government to the point that we lose so many vital services for so many segments of our population,” Boggs explained, “so I think that he said that he’s open to other cuts, but I think to think that we can possibly cut $450 million out and not really make West Virginia a very difficult place to live and to work, I think he’s right on point.”
On only the second day of the legislative session, there’s quite a way to go before lawmakers put a final spending plan in place, but Boggs said he’s optimistic about Justice’s proposal.
“He’s giving us how it is,” Boggs noted, “I don’t think; it’s something that’s sometimes, the medicine’s kind of bitter to take, but I think the takeaway, we need to make sure we do right by the citizens of this state.”
Thursday morning, representatives of the state budget and the governor’s offices presented the governor’s plan in more detail — details House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, said were not included in Justice’s State of the State Address.
So he said he and his colleagues are just scratching the surface of the proposal.
“I look at some of the positives that were out there, you know tourism in areas of the state; infrastructure, but you know, the devil’s in the details, and gosh our back’s are against the wall,” Nelson said, “and so we’ve got to work all the way around; find areas of compromise, and many of his secretaries have only been in their position two weeks, so let’s work through this.”
Thursday afternoon, across the rotunda — members of the Senate Finance Committee were given that same detailed presentation by the director of the State Budget Office, Mark McKown. He was asked about that alternative budget made up solely of cuts to government, first by Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha.
“Was the point of this exercise to come up with the cuts that [would be the least harmful] or the most shocking?” Palumbo asked.
McKown said the Governor’s Office wanted to avoid cuts to public education and most Medicaid coverage while also keeping the state’s prisons and jails open, but otherwise, McKown said there isn’t much left in the budget to cut.
Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall added his own thoughts.
“Obviously, to a lot of minds it would be unacceptable to do several of the things on here,” Hall said, “The question is, are there other things not on here that total up to a substantial amount of money and my belief is, having looked at the budget, there are not other things unless you go to the school aid formula or the Medicaid line.”
Hall said his Finance Committee will split into subgroups to dig through smaller sections of the budget to find additional places to cut. That work will begin after the committee hears from all of the state agencies during their budget presentations this month.