Tonight, when Gov. Tomblin delivers his final State of the State address to the Legislature, both he and lawmakers face a crisis. A budget shortfall of around $350 million is projected for next year, and there’s no easy way to find enough money for a required balanced budget.
Over the past few years, in an attempt to attract more business to West Virginia, corporate taxes were lowered by nearly $200 million. Removing the sales tax on food wiped out $170 million more. Then the coal industry declined and natural gas prices dropped, erasing more state revenue. All this forced the state to slash spending repeatedly.
Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, running for governor, has declared that no tax increases will be allowed, but instead state services will be cut. Does he intend to lay off state troopers? — or reduce coal mine safety inspections? — or eliminate school lunches for children? — or stop paving decrepit roads? — or halt pollution controls? — or stop Promise Scholarships for college? — or stop hiring public school teachers? — or what?
Education offers the most reliable path for West Virginia to rise from the bottom ranks. Slashing it should be unthinkable.
“I fear we’re in a downward curve,” Cole said. Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D- Marshall, also running for governor, added: “I think you’re going to see this session overwhelmingly dominated by money or the lack thereof.”
But at least part of this “crisis” has been engineered by a Legislature slavishly following an anti-tax theology, rather than budgeting for good government. West Virginia will continue on this “downward curve” until the Legislature gets serious about acknowledging the need for well-functioning government.
Here’s a way to cover part of the shortage: West Virginia has an absurdly low cigarette tax. For years, health reformers have said that adding $1 per pack to the state tax would produce $100 million more state revenue — and save tens of thousands of teens from nicotine addiction that brings suffering and early death.
A few years ago, the American Cancer Society estimated that a dollar extra tax would save 20,000 West Virginia lives yearly, along with $17 million needless medical cost. This reform is a no-brainer. Legislators should stop fretting about taxes and take the lifesaving step.
Here’s another money-saving idea: The state gives a giant subsidy to greyhound breeders, $29 million a year even though interest in greyhound racing fades. Sen. Chris Walters, R-Putnam, wants to end it. We could do without his proposed $19 million buyout, but by all means, save the yearly subsidy and put it toward better uses.
Further, promoters want to build another ATV trail to draw outdoors-riding tourists to seven mid-state counties, hoping to match the success of the Hatfield-McCoy trail in southern counties. We hope legislators help this project as much as possible.
Meanwhile, some extreme conservatives want to let everyone carry hidden pistols, without permits, without training. It will be sad if lawmakers are diverted into such ugly emotional topics.
Gov. Tomblin is expected to offer other budget-fixing proposals tonight. We hope he and legislators find sensible, workable solutions that keep the Mountain State fiscally healthy.