So far in the 2016 session, conservative legislators have wasted most of their time on gay-hating, pistol-carrying and other far-right topics, while doing little about West Virginia’s partly self-induced financial crisis.
Thanks mostly to huge business tax cuts in the past, plus decline of the coal industry, the state government lacks $381 million for a balanced budget in the current fiscal year that ends June 30, plus another $466 million shortage projected for the next fiscal year.
By law, the state must have a balanced budget each year, but it’s difficult to see how $847 million in gaps can be closed under current conditions. In his State of the State address, Gov. Tomblin requested a 45-cent increase in the state’s cigarette tax, and new taxes on phone service.
Tuesday, the state Center on Budget & Policy issued a long report on the financial crisis.
The study says West Virginia has slashed support for higher education by $120 million since 2008, the worst reduction of any state. The cutback forced Mountain State students and their families to pay one-third more. Quality of higher education is being jeopardized at a time when college and university degrees increasingly are needed for middle-class careers.
State support for public schools (K-12) also been slashed by $18 million since 2012, largely because the number of students fell by 5,172. State aid to county school systems is based on enrollment. The governor’s proposed 2017 budget foresees another $48 million reduction.
How can the giant money shortages be fixed? The Center on Budget & Policy recommends a bigger increase in cigarette taxes, to $1.55 per pack — plus more taxes on alcohol — plus wiping out $29 million yearly subsidy to greyhound breeders — plus major tax hikes on natural gas drilling — plus applying the state sales tax to barbershops, nail salons and digital downloads.
We hope lawmakers end their obsession with gays and pistols, then do their duty to pass a balanced budget.
Auditor Glen Gainer III said Thursday the current shortfall is the worst during his quarter-century tenure. If a flood of new revenue doesn’t arrive before June 30, he may be forced to halt state paychecks and teacher salaries. “It would be very dire,” he said.