Public called to weigh in on West Virginia State Budget

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By Dan Heyman

At the last moment, the State Legislature passed a budget with deep cuts to Medicaid and to K-12 and higher education. Now community groups are saying the voices of West Virginians are going to be vital to resolving the state’s budget standoff.

The Republican leadership of both the House and Senate backed the bill, but Gov. Jim Justice is likely to veto it. He favors a plan that would raise revenue from a temporary tax on businesses, as well as broader and higher sales taxes.

Tara Martinez, an organizer with the coalition Protect WV, said which plan wins out may depend on public opinion.

“Visit with our legislators, write letters, write op-eds, call,” Martinez said. “That is going to be crucial. We as citizens really want a budget that has vision and growth in mind.”

Martinez said the Legislature should be back in session in about two weeks to hash out a tax and spending plan. In the meantime, she said there’s a page on the Protect WV website where folks can enter their address and their comments or opinions – which are then sent automatically to the correct lawmakers for their district.

The differing budget plans represent deep philosophical differences about how the state should address its huge budget shortfall.

The GOP majority in the Legislature argues that smaller government with lower taxes would bring faster economic and job growth. But after years of budget cuts, Martinez said she thinks it’s time to invest in education and infrastructure.

She said even the head of the state Chamber of Commerce and a large faction of West Virginia business owners accept the governor’s temporary business tax.

“They know, being business-oriented folks, that it’s time for them to make investments,” Martinez said. “We’re at a crucial point in the state, where it’s sink or swim. So, they are willing to give a little more, as long as everyone’s giving.”

A poll by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy before the legislative session began found that 70 percent of voters in the state favored higher taxes to pay for investments in education, infrastructure and workforce development.