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Commentary: Governor explains what deep cuts may look like

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Commentary: Governor explains what deep cuts may look like
By Hoppy Kercheval, WV MetroNews

Governor Earl Ray Tomblin says without a tax increase, “we’re going to have to make some very, very serious cuts” to state spending to balance the budget for the 2017 fiscal year beginning July 1.

How serious? For example, Tomblin has told legislative leaders that public education spending would have to be cut by four percent, or $63 million, resulting in the layoff of 800 school teachers and 500 service workers.

Higher ed would take an eight percent cut for another $28 million, which Tomblin says would result in the closure of schools or branches. Another $47.5 million could be culled from the Promise Scholarship program.

Tomblin made clear in an interview with me on Talkline Tuesday that he’s not proposing these cuts, but rather highlighting what areas would be hit if lawmakers want to fill the entire $270 million hole in next year’s budget with spending reductions.

“Some people say, ‘Well, we just need to take the bloat out of government. We need to cut more.’ I’ve cut over $300 million out of the budget the last three years,” Tomblin said. “If we’re not able to get some additional revenue we’re going to have to make some very, very serious cuts.”

Tomblin administration officials say, hypothetically, it would require the elimination of all General Revenue funding for the state Commerce Department, the Department of Education and the Arts, the Department of Revenue (except for the tax department), the Department of Veterans Assistance, and the entire State Police to save the $270 million necessary to plug next year’s budget hole.

Clearly, some of the Governor’s rhetoric is aimed at trying to move reluctant Republican House members toward support of a higher cigarette tax.  Tomblin initially backed a .45-cent per pack increase, to $1.00. The Senate raised it to a $1.00 increase, to $1.55 a pack, but neither got any traction in the House.

A solid block of House Republicans are against any tobacco tax increase and House Democrats have so far refused to back away from their support of a $1.00 increase in any attempt to foster a compromise.

Republican leaders have grumbled that Tomblin has failed to whip House Democrat votes for a .45-cent increase, but the Governor told me Tuesday he would be willing to do that.  “I would do my best and we’re working with the Democrats and trying to get them to come around,” Tomblin said.

But he adds that .45-cents would raise $71 to $72 million, which still leaves a hole of roughly $200 million, and that brings us back to the question of where the rest of the cuts/savings can be found.

In my interview with the Governor he did not mention the Rainy Day Fund. He’s loath to take any more than absolutely necessary from the savings account for two reasons: the fear that the state’s credit rating will suffer and the fiscal risk of using one-time money to cover what are annual costs.

The state’s chief executive has the bully pulpit. His pronouncement of what $270 million in cuts could look like is attention grabbing, shifting the discussion from a mere political dispute to the possibility of teacher layoffs and college campus shutdowns.

There’s some gamesmanship here on the part of Tomblin, but it also is a maneuver that might help spur the budget talks toward a reasonable compromise.