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Commentary: Gov. Tomblin's hypothetical budget cutting options

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Commentary: Gov. Tomblin's hypothetical budget cutting options
By Hoppy Kercheval, WV MetroNews

Legislative leaders and members of the Tomblin administration continue their private and arduous discussions on what the state’s FY 2017 budget should look like. Principals have purposely toned down the public finger-pointing to try to relieve the inevitable tension associated with the fiscally and politically difficult negotiations.

“We’re meeting, we’re trying to get to the ‘yes,’” said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Mike Hall following another session Thursday morning.  “We know the public wants us to get this solved, but we want to get it solved in the right way and do it with the least amount of pain.”

But, Hall concedes, it’s not possible to plug the expected $270 million shortfall in next year’s budget without some pain, and just how much fiscal discomfort depends on the depth and breadth of the spending cuts.

The Tomblin administration recently distributed a confidential list of possibilities to legislative leaders under the title of, “Hypothetical Budget Scenarios if Legislature adopts minimal or no new revenue & relies exclusively or significantly on budget cuts.”

Option one includes a four percent cut to public education (resulting in the layoff of 805 teachers and 495 service workers), an eight percent cut to higher education, the immediate elimination of the Promise Scholarship funding and leaving a $43 million gap in PEIA funding.

Option two includes cutting public education by 6.8 percent (resulting in the layoff of 1,369 teachers and 841 service workers), an 18 percent cut in higher ed and a phase out of the Promise Scholarship, but fully funding PEIA.

Option three preserves the Promise Scholarship and fully funds PEIA, but cuts public education by 6.8 percent and closes six state police detachments and six tax offices.

Option four eliminates the state Departments of Commerce, Education and the Arts, Environmental Protection, Revenue (excluding Tax Dept.), Transportation, Veterans’ Assistance, Senior Services and the State Police, resulting in the elimination of 2,758 positions.

A fifth option imagines a spending reduction of $150 million, presuming the remaining $120 million would come from a tax increase.  It includes a two percent cut in public education and a ten percent cut in higher ed, but fully funding PEIA.

Tomblin administration officials did not make the options public.  When asked about them, an official stressed that they were not the Governor’s recommendations, but rather examples of what deep cuts could look like and a starting point for budget negotiations.

House leaders believe the Governor’s options are worst case scenarios, stressing that even without tax increases there are better ways to hit the $270 million mark than Tomblin’s plans.  However, there’s no word yet on what their plan looks like.  Leaders are worried that leaks could upset what one person described as a delicate moment in the negotiations.

However, reportedly enough progress has been made that there are at least general discussions about when lawmakers could return to Charleston for a special session on the budget.