Cuts, politics make balancing of state budget even harder

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By Pamela Pritt Register-Herald Reporter   

CHARLESTON — The state’s budget is still a work in progress Tuesday after a 60-day session fraught with issues other than the budget Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said in his State of the State address would be tight.

Sen. Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, is the man charged with the balancing act.

Prezioso, chair of the Senate Committee on Finance, said Tomblin’s initial budget cut state agencies by 7.5 percent that included a hiring freeze. With not that many new hires on the horizon, state agencies ended up making budget cuts.

During the last two months, Prezioso said state revenues are not coming in as projected, so an initial $80 million deficit could now be as much as $120 million, but Prezioso said the “meet in the middle number” is now about $103 million.

The annual angst that comes with the budget process is intensified because those budget cuts come in an election year, with 100 members of the House of Delegates and 17 members of the Senate launching campaigns back home.

That makes budget negotiations more difficult, Prezioso said, and some crucial budget legislation didn’t make it through both chambers as the gavels came down a final time Saturday night.

The Senate took $50 million from the traffic account to balance this year’s budget, Prezioso said, and the House “raided the Attorney General’s budget for $12 million.”

“We’re different on our opinion of where the money should come from,” the Finance Chair continued. “We’re really not even close to putting things together.”

Prezioso said the leadership of both chambers will meet with Tomblin to resurrect the bills that didn’t beat the clock Saturday night. He’s hopeful that will happen, otherwise, he said, the budget builders would have no choice but to make more drastic budget cuts or larger withdrawals from the Rainy Day Fund.

Deeper budget cuts have the potential to cause deeper divisions in the legislature.

“It’s going to be a boxing ring for the next couple of days,” Prezioso said.

He said he’d been so focussed on the numbers for so long that he almost didn’t figure in the politics.

“Politics plays a major part in all this,” he said. “People want to get elected; people want to do things to help constituents.”

While he’s no stranger to the politics facet of the job, he’s also troubleshooting a troubling financial situation.

“I care about making budgets work, making the state solvent so we can keep the ship afloat and providing services for people,” Prezioso said.

Three bills are in question right now and he said there is uncertainty that the House, the Senate and the Governor can compromise on those.

Most crucial at this point seems to be House Bill 4333 which has been dubbed “the haircut” bill.

The bill whacked 15 percent out of all the “buckets,” which include State Park improvement, the Research Challenge Fund, the General Fund, the Capitol Renovation and Improvement Fund and casinos and racetracks.

Prezioso said that train came off the track when county and municipal funding were part of the cuts. He said people running for re-election could not go home with news of budget cuts, so the plan became to move to other “buckets.”

Then proposed cuts affected other programs and agencies in counties. Bond ratings were projected to drop, and that would mean the state couldn’t fund projects it is mandated to do, such as a $40 million clean up of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

A solution to have the legislature take over payments from the State Lottery’s excess funds met with resistance, because he was told people didn’t “trust the legislature to write the checks.”

“That’s what we’re fighting over now—who writes the checks,” he said.

He said the Lottery Commission first pays its winners, and then mandated offices, as well as priority funding that does affect the state’s bond rating such as economic development fund bonds, school building authority bonds, higher education improvement bonds and refundable credit.

Twenty years ago when the Excess Lottery Fund was established, Prezioso said no one realized what a cash cow the gambling industry would become.

Although those funds are now in a decline, the percentages set up for funds like the Promise Scholarship, Teacher’s Retirement and the West Virginia Racing Commission are in statute and can’t be changed regardless of who’s passing out the money.

“There are no winners and no losers in this budget,” he said.

Only infrastructure loses for one year,” he said.

After the day’s final floor session Tuesday, Sen. Daniel Hall, D-Wyoming, said the House and the Senate were beginning to have a meeting of the minds, with only the language of the agreement to be worked out by attorneys.

But even if those budget talks might be winding down, there’s still more work for the legislature to do that didn’t get finished during the regular session.

Sen. President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, urged Tomblin to call a special session to address three bills, two of which have to do with finances.

One would allow county officials to have raises, which would not affect the state budget, the other would allow counties that have not assessed properties correctly to not be punished at the expense of the local share, which affects three county boards of education, including Wyoming.

The final bill would allow drill cuttings and waste to be disposed of in municipal landfills, except for in the Eastern Panhandle, Pocahontas, Greenbrier and Nicholas counties, where karst topography is prevalent.