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Big mistake - Ignoring revenue for massive cuts to state budget is wrong
Register-Herald editorial

Just when we thought the 2016 legislative session in Charleston couldn’t have been any worse, we hear reports that budget negotiators are considering excessively harsh and short-sighted cuts to the state’s budget.

That would be a massive mistake. If you have the stomach for just how deep and how destructive those cuts would be, read on. But don’t say we didn’t warn you.

Members of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s team and legislative leaders are trying to plug a $270 million hole in the fiscal 2017 budget. Their deadline is July 1.

Hoppy Kercheval of Metro News Talkline recently reported that Tomblin’s administration has put together “Hypothetical Budget Scenarios” if the negotiators choose not to include any revenue measures — otherwise known as taxes. These are not the governor’s recommendations but rather worst-case scenarios.

And what it shows is that members of the “no new taxes” wing of the House of Delegates is going out of its way to chop off life and limb from education — the last thing this state should be considering.

Spare us the old bromide that the state needs to live within its means just like hard-working families across the state. That’s what House Speaker Tim Armstead said earlier this year. 

“Truthfully, we’re going to have to live within our means just like families are doing,” Armstead said. “We’re going to have to cut back in a few things. That’s difficult, but it’s necessary.”

Well, guess what, Mr. Speaker. Running a government and providing services for citizens is nothing like managing a family budget. The state has to balance the budget. Families don’t and families are in debt. They’ve got a note on their car and their truck, they have a 30-year mortgage on the house, some have taken on business debt and almost all are carrying consumer debt on their credit cards. Yes, cards — plural.

Folks are making it work because they have put pencil to paper and figured out a way to pay off their debts going forward. They aren’t getting any help from Charleston where our political leaders have lacked the courage to pursue an agenda that creates new streams of revenue for the state. Their answer? Cut services to the bone.

Try this on for size. One of the governor’s hypothetical scenarios — remember, no tax increase involved — would cut four percent from public education and eight percent from higher education while eliminating Promise Scholarship funding. Oh, yes, PEIA — one of the few benefits this state’s teachers have — would see a $43 million sinkhole. The result of that idea? Well, for public education alone, a four percent shave would create the loss of 805 teachers and 495 service workers — this in a state with an estimated 600 classrooms already lacking a qualified teacher.

In the long term, Mr. Speaker, what do you estimate the cost of that to be? Think on that just a minute.

In another of the governor’s hypotheticals, public education would get a buzz cut of 6.8 percent that would claim —get ready for big numbers — the loss of 1,369 teachers and 841 service workers. But that’s not all. Higher education would suffer an 18 percent cut. Who’s going to pay that tuition bill, Mr. Speaker?

This is all so unnecessary if only we could get some delegates off their political high horses and find a bottle of courage. The state budget, suffering from a decline in tax revenues from the ailing coal industry, needs fresh thinking and restructuring. Gov. Tomblin has offered a hike in the cigarette tax and the Senate raised the bid to a full dollar.

We’re not crazy about a single tax hike, especially one that targets the poor which a cigarette tax does. But if it gets us to a place where we can think more creatively about rebuilding the structure of our state budget so that it is self-sustaining, then so be it. For now, anyway.

Bottom line: We need better answers than what we’re getting. And it begins with honest leadership that has a vision — and not politicians tied to old bromides as a reason to be frozen in fear.