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West Virginia’s budget — from bad to worse

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West Virginia’s budget — from bad to worse
Hoppy Kercheval, Talkline host

Humorist Will Rogers said, “Last year we said, ‘things can’t go on like this,’ and they didn’t; they got worse.”

That sums up where West Virginia is now with its budget predicament.  Jim Justice talked a lot during the campaign about the state’s fiscal challenges and how he would bring a fresh approach to the problem.  He frequently reminded voters that it really wasn’t going to be that hard to fix the state.

However, Justice is now finding out that the state’s climb out of the fiscal hole is going to be tougher than expected.  Nick Casey, Justice’s chief of staff, admitted as much on MetroNews Talkline Monday.

“Things are indeed worse than I ever thought they could be,” Casey confessed.

How bad?  Casey is working on cuts of between $390 million and $606 million in next year’s budget.  Those are giant numbers that reflect cuts of between 10 and 15 percent of the General Revenue budget.

Governor Tomblin cut $400 million over several years, largely through across-the-board cuts, and now the new administration is contemplating a cut of that much or more in just one year. Casey says there are no good options left.

“There are just no good choices on these cuts at this stage of the game, except to say, ‘they are going to be painful and they’re going to impact people,’” Casey said.

He did not specify what would be cut, but here’s where the real money is and the percentage of the budget, according to this fiscal year’s General Revenue appropriations: Public education $1.9 billion (46%), Health and Human Resources $1.1 billion (26%), Higher Education $400 million (10%), Military Affairs and Public Safety $359 million (9%).

All other operations of the state, including funding for all three branches of government, senior and veterans services, the Division of Environmental Protection, Education and the Arts and more, cost taxpayers just under $400 million (9%).

House Speaker Tim Armstead says his body is willing to partner with the Governor to make the tough decisions.

“There’s been a recognition all along that’s what we were facing, that we’re going to be looking at some significant cuts,” Armstead said on Talkline.  “I think that everyone has been basically preparing themselves for that.”

But it’s also like preparing for major surgery; not until you wake up from the anesthesia do you begin to fully realize the magnitude of the procedure.  That’s what West Virginia is in for, potentially the deepest one-time cuts in state spending in memory.

The last time a new Governor faced such a significant budget challenge was after the 1988 election of Gaston Caperton.  Facing an estimated $300 million shortfall during each of his first two years in office, Caperton pushed through $400 million in new taxes and cuts in state spending.

Governor Justice said during the campaign he does not want to raise taxes, and Casey says he sees no support in the Legislature for new revenue.  However, lawmakers have not yet gotten a look at what $390 million to $606 million in cuts will look like.

The sticker shock of that could shift the discussion.