by Stephen Baldwin
Job one for the legislature is passing a balanced budget that protects our people. We are nearly halfway through the session now, and we do not yet have a budget.
BUDGET DEFICIT. Unless you’ve been living in Organ Cave, you know we face a gigantic budget deficit next fiscal year. The state of West Virginia is in a $500 million in the hole.
GOV. JUSTICE’S PLAN. In his state of the state speech, Gov. Justice proposed a budget plan that utilized cuts, new taxes, and a road bond. Legislative leaders criticized the plan and said they would offer their own, but they have yet to do so. Gov. Justice came back to the table this week with another budget plan. Here are the basics.
CUTS. Times are tough, so we all have to tighten our belts. The governor proposes cuts totaling $50 million from universities, public broadcasting, his cabinet departments, and more.
“ALTERNATIVE” CUTS. I encourage you to go to the governor’s website to see what all would have to be cut if we had to make up our budget deficit entirely through cuts. Every college would be cut entirely from the budget. State parks would only be open a few days a week. The arts would be cut out entirely. Thousands of state employees would be laid off. Our most vulnerable citizens – the disabled, senior citizens, children – would all be affected most.
TAXES. One cent per ounce on each sugary drink. Fifty cents per pack of cigarettes. B&O tax on all businesses of 0.00075%. Wealth tax of $500 on all people who make over $200,000/year, $750 on those who make over $250,000, and $1,000 on those who make over $300,000. Remove all exemptions on sales taxes (such as legal and accounting services), except advertisements which will remain tax free. Raise the sales tax to 6.25%.
SMOOTHING. “Smoothing” the teacher’s retirement account, which will save us $41 million next year alone. What is it? Like paying your gas bill year round on a budget plan so the winter bills don’t bankrupt you, smoothing allows you to make multiple smaller payments over time rather than a lump sum, without costing more in the long run.
JOBS PLAN. Gov. Justice, at the same time, wants to create 48,000 jobs by repairing our current roads and building new ones. He will pay for it by raising DMV registration fees to $50/car, raising tolls on the turnpike to $4 (but you can buy an EZ Pass for $8/year and never pay a toll), and raising the gas tax by four and a half cents. (The real payoff would come later as those folks who go to work on the roads would be paying payroll taxes. Once those start rolling in, our state budget would stabilize and have a broader base than it had in the past.) Also, vehicle inspections will only be required once every three years instead of every year.
GOOD PLAN. Gov. Justice has put forward not one but two plans to save our state. I appreciate his bold leadership. If we had to cut $500 million from the budget, our state would never recover. I am willing to pay a little more to save West Virginia, put our people back to work, rebuild our roads, and protect our most vulnerable citizens. Many of you have been in touch to say that you too are willing to do your part so long as we are all bearing some of the burden and we see the results with our own eyes.
BOTTOM LINE. Some of the details will change between now and the end of the session. None of us will get everything we want. But we need a balanced budget on time that not only saves our state but sets us up for the future. We need to tighten our belts, and we also need to raise new revenues that are fair and focused on those who can afford to pay them.
That’s how I see the state budget from the back pew.
(Stephen Baldwin is a local pastor and Delegate to the WV House. You may reach him at (304) 340-3131 or Stephen.firstname.lastname@example.org.)