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An exasperated WV Senate budget-writer speaks his mind

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An exasperated WV Senate budget-writer speaks his mind
Dan Heyman, public News Service

Charleston, W.Va. - West Virginia lawmakers have boxed themselves into a budget crisis, and the head of a legislative budget-writing committee says it keeps him up nights worrying about it.

There are some signs of motion in the House going into the weekend, but Senate Finance Committee chairman Mike Hall, R-Putnam County, said the failure of a tobacco tax hike in the House and limits set by the governor have left them about $100 million short. Some other Republicans have said the gap should be covered though big budget cuts, but Hall said there are only a handful of places to cut -- all unpalatable.

"Yes. Am I frustrated, staying awake at night? Yup," he said. "Happy to sit down with anybody, anywhere. Say, 'Which one do you want to go after? And here are the consequences if you do.' So far, they have not."

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has said he won't accept a plan that drains too much from the state rainy-day fund. Hall said that leaves new revenue, or steep cuts to Medicaid, public safety, education or higher education to balance the general revenue budget.

The Senate passed a 45-cent-per-pack cigarette tax increase, but an anti-tax faction of House conservatives joined with Democrats holding out for $1 a pack to block that. It has left Hall pulling out his hair as the state approaches a budget-crisis "drop-dead" date. He noted that, with the Republican Senate president running for governor, Democrats have a political incentive to hold out.

"We're worried that the politics of delay works against the Republican leaders of the Legislature," Hall said. "You know, I'm not accusing anybody of anything, but I've been worried for a good while."

If the state cuts some health programs, Hall said, West Virginia loses federal matching funds, and he's already hearing from constituents who say that could delay badly needed medical care. Other possible cuts could be just as unpopular.

"Could we introduce a bill that reduces public education funding by $50 million and lose about 3,000 or 4,000 teachers? And then you say, 'Well, let's cut Medicaid $50 million,' " Hall said. "I'm telling you, there's consequences."

More information on the state budget from the West Virginia Center On Budget and Policy, including "Your Guide to the State Budget," is online at wvpolicy.org. The Legislature's website is legis.state.wv.us.