Despite a decent September for state revenue, the rest of the current fiscal year has been a loser, with $33.26 million below estimates for the first quarter. As a result, Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, said on Monday’s MetroNews “Talkline” that state agencies are likely looking at budget cuts to the tune of $100 million for the coming year.
There goes everybody’s wish list, from additional dollars for road repairs to combating the opioid epidemic to extra highway funding. How has West Virginia’s budget outlook gone from mostly sunny to a steady, pounding drizzle virtually overnight?
After all, the Justice administration raised state revenue upward three times in the last half of the past budget year. All told, those increases totaled over a whopping $300 million in added, projected revenue. Yet now, just a few months later, poof. Up in smoke.
Some argue that the Legislature should have been more cautious, especially on big new outlays, like the $105 million in state employee pay raises or shoring up PEIA with a similar, nine-figure price tag.
However, in a state as cash-strapped as West Virginia has been, legislators on both sides of the aisle might be forgiven, at least by some, for wanting to take a rare bit of good fiscal news to stabilize PEIA. The Justice administration told them that the money was going to be there.
Now, state agencies have to start looking for ways to absorb the $100 million shortfall. I realize this may be unfashionable to say in conservative circles, but, in my time in state government, I only saw frugal fiscal management in Secretary of State Ken Hechler’s office, or other offices with whom we worked at the Statehouse.
Raises were rare, and any extra budget funds were used for essentials, like improving outdated technology to more efficiently do the people’s work. Whatever excesses there may be in state government, most agencies live within their means. Yet these are the same, responsible agencies who will now have to cut their budgets back $100 million next year.
Gov. Jim Justice has a kind of blowsy optimism that some people might still like. But when he goes from simply being a cheerleader for the state to giving highly questionable revenue estimates four times in a row, that begins to look irresponsible.
True, revenue from the fossil fuel sector has been down of late, reviving the chorus of the obvious who remind us that West Virginia needs to diversify its economy. Of course it does. But what has the Justice administration done to genuinely increase the state’s revenue by drawing different kinds of industry or homegrown businesses to the state?
The Justice administration has had nearly three years to show some job creation and revenue generation efforts across the Mountain State. Nobody expects miracles from any governor in these vital areas. But we do like to see a little elbow grease; some consistent effort to move the state’s economic football down the field. Not budgetary smoke and mirrors.