Commentary: At the Capitol

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By Phil Kabler
For WV Press Association

With less than a month remaining in 60-day regular session, House and Senate leaders unveiled their counterproposal to Gov. Jim Justice’s budget plan.

What Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, and House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, proposed was not so much an alternative budget bill, but what they called a framework to cap general revenue spending for the 2017-18 budget year at $4.05 billion.

That’s about $390 million less than the current state budget and $445 million below Gov. Jim Justice’s budget plan, which would require raising about $350 million in new taxes.

The legislative proposal would require cuts to areas that have been spared major reductions in the past, including K-12 public education and programs in the Department of Health and Human Resources, along with additional cuts to Higher Education.

Carmichael said he envisions that the “big three” of the state budget will have $150 million of spending cuts – about $50 million each.

“What you have before you is a group of legislators willing to make the tough decisions, and go into areas that have too long been off-limits,” Carmichael said during an announcement where he and Armstead were joined by numerous House and Senate Republicans.

“We have avoided going into the three big areas that effectively constitute roughly three-quarters of the general revenue budget,” Armstead added. “We believe there are very responsible ways we can go into those funds and make reductions.”

Specific cuts will be determined later in the session, the leaders said, as House and Senate Finance committees comb through each agency’s budget requests.

While Gov. Justice had been pressing the leadership to make their counter-offer on the 2017-18 budget plan, their announcement leaves a $445 million chasm between the two proposals, potentially setting up a repeat of last year’s budget impasse when the budget bill did not pass until June 14 – 16 days away from a state government shutdown.

Justice was dismissive of the legislative proposal, commenting, “Bless their hearts, but the Legislature’s framework will not save the patient. What we saw today from the House and Senate only kicks the can around the block. It doesn’t give our classroom teachers a pay raise, it doesn’t increase tourism advertising, it doesn’t bring jobs, and it lacks the tools to jump start our economy.”

The governor added, “The clock is ticking; let’s work together to pass a responsible budget that brings jobs or we will die 50th.”

Later in the week, Justice said he was frustrated that legislators have tried to portray the budget options as “raising taxes versus living within our means” as opposed to his view that it is a matter of investing in the state versus continuing on a path to economic collapse.

If the debate on the budget is like a chess match, Justice made a move late in the week to garner support for his budget, announcing plans to restore funding for West Virginia Public Broadcasting and the popular Mountain Stage concert series in his budget bill – contingent on the Legislature approving his tax increase proposals.

When Justice unveiled his budget plan on Feb. 8, he zeroed out funding for those programs, much to the outcry of their supporters and fans.

In a letter to the Legislature Friday, Justice advised that he would restore the $4.6 million of funding for Public Broadcasting, if legislators approve his version of the budget.

He said of his original proposal to cut Public Broadcasting’s funding, among $26.6 million of proposed spending cuts, “We had to put some things on the table to start a dialogue.”

Justice added, “It’s not like I’ve been an adversary to Public Broadcasting. I think it’s very much needed in the state.”

Justice said putting Public Broadcasting back in the 2017-18 state budget would provide an opportunity to pursue a possible transition to move operation of the state’s public television and public radio stations from the Educational Broadcasting Authority, a state agency, to West Virginia University.

“We are working with (WVU) President Gordon Gee to transition West Virginia’s Public Broadcasting into the WVU family,” Justice said.

WVU operated the public television station in Morgantown, now WNPB-TV, from its inception in 1969 until the EBA took over operations in 1981.

Meanwhile, talk of $50 million of potential budget cuts made the annual Higher Education Day at the Legislature a bit gloomy this year.

“It’s a bit of a paradox, I guess, to have them say how great we’re doing on the one hand, then they want to cut us 20 percent on the other,” Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert commented.