West Virginia Republican Legislature Passes Balanced Budget

They did it!

After three weeks of obstruction by Democrat lawmakers in the House of Delegates and state Senate, the Republican-led West Virginia Legislature passed a balanced budget for fiscal year 2017 with no tax increases.

The House of Delegates voted yesterday agreeing to amendments made by the Senate to the budget bill, and now the bill will land on Democrat Governor Earl Ray Tomblin’s desk. The $4.1 billion dollar budget helps fill the hole caused by a projected $271 million shortfall, using $30.5 million in cuts, $35.5 million in agency sweeps, and more than $180 million from the Revenue Shortfall Fund (also called the rainy day fund).

While the budget passed yesterday makes no one happy, it still fully funds the Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA), funds education and higher ed, maintains the PROMISE Scholarship, and keeps government functioning…at least until Governor Tomblin gets the revenue projections wrong again.

Chris Stadelman, the spokesperson for Governor Tomblin, told Hoppy Kercheval on WV MetroNews Talkline that Tomblin plans to veto the entire budget, calling the document “irresponsible.” Of course, if Tomblin had shown any form of leadership instead of daydreaming about retiring to Myrtle Beach, he likely would have received a better budget document.

Tomblin largely turned over any leadership he had to Democrat gubernatorial candidate Jim Justice, whose campaign team caucused with Democrat legislators to find ways to stop progress on a balanced approach to the budget. These Democrat lawmakers have tried to stop any effort by Republicans to find a compromise solution to the state’s budget woes.

Republicans are traditionally against tax increases, but in an effort to compromise they moved Governor Tomblin’s proposal for a 45 cent tax increase on tobacco products. Legislative Democrats wanted a full $1 increase, and instead of compromising themselves, they decided to vote against the 45 cent proposal. It passed the Senate but died in the House. Republicans even moved Tomblin’s bill to increase the state sales tax by one percent, but it died in committee when Senate Democrats wouldn’t support it. On the House side, House Minority Leader Tim Miley wouldn’t even introduce it on behalf of Governor Tomblin.

Yet, when it came time to vote for the budget, Democrats in both chambers cried out about how we need new tax revenue instead of cuts, sweeps, and rainy day funds. The hypocrisy is staggering. They had opportunities to work with Republicans on the tobacco tax. Where was the leadership from Miley and Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler? Where was Tomblin and his staff? Instead of whipping Democrat votes, the Governor’s leadership was absent from the negotiations.

Tomblin doesn’t want a budget that drawls heavily from one-time sweeps and rainy day funds, but what other choice has he given lawmakers? Twice now he has tried to introduce budgets he says are “balanced,” but that were only balanced if lawmakers also passed separate tax increase proposals. He has not sent lawmakers a budget balanced based on the revenue currently being bought in, but on theoretical revenue. As we have seen the last few years, Tomblin’s revenue projections have been repeatedly wrong, requiring supplemental appropriations in the middle of fiscal years.

If the Governor is going to veto this budget, then he needs to propose a budget with the cuts needed to bring the document in line with actual revenues. The state’s coal and natural gas severance tax revenue has collapsed, we’re losing population and will continue to do so, our population is aging and living off of Social Security and Medicare, and our worker participation rate continues to drop with fewer people working and more people on welfare. I could go on, but these all factor into why our state’s tax revenue is disappearing.

Up to now, Tomblin has tried to move budget bills as if all the factors I mentioned above don’t exist. This isn’t 2010, when coal exports were breaking records and we were having a fracking boom. He needs to present a responsible budget and only he can do it. West Virginia’s Legislature is made up of part-time lawmakers who come to town for a 60-day legislative session each year and a handful of interim meetings, then they go back home to their communities and work regular jobs. Our lawmakers are reliant on the budget projections and agency reports the Governor’s office makes available.

If Tomblin won’t present a reasonable budget and cut state government, the next governor will have to make those hard choices. Hopefully it’s Senate President Bill Cole, the Republican, instead of Justice, the Democrat who won’t pay his own taxes, bills, and fines.