Panelists note cluster of state needs in budget panel

CHARLESTON — Grappling with the salient needs for social services, education, infrastructure and other aspects of residents’ lives, panelists contemplated challenges faced by legislators regarding the coming budget at the West Virginia Press Association’s Legislative Lookahead Friday at the Culture Center in Charleston.

In response to one impassioned question from the audience, Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, stressed the importance of investing in the lives of the state’s very young children.

“We all know that the first thousand days, the first three years of a child’s life, are so important,” said Stollings, an internal medicine and geriatric physician. He’s also a member of the West Virginia Senate Finance Committee.

“As my day job allows me to see … I can’t tell you how many of my patients are de facto parents to many of these children you’re talking about,” he said. “We cannot wait until they enter pre-K or kindergarten before they have some type of intervention.”

Stollings called the earliest years of a child’s life “an important place that we have to invest in order to save a generation.” He said, too, that he’s known of “catastrophes” in foster care stemming from funding shortages.

Stollings was speaking on a panel with Del. Vernon Criss, R-Wood, vice chairman of the House Finance Committee, and Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. The panel was moderated by Greg Moore, executive editor of the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

The panel considered, among other things, the importance of diversifying the state economy and also of maintaining a vibrant higher education system in the face of massive cuts over the past decade. Panelists noted a surplus of nearly $200 million from this past year.

“By law, half of that goes to the rainy day fund,” Criss said. “Those dollars are restricted.”

Criss also called what’s been tabbed the “business inventory tax” a “top priority” for the coming session, in response to a question from Moore. He said the “funding replacement would come from the general revenue fund, as far as we understand right now.”

Criss explained the process.

“This will be a constitutional amendment, a concurrent resolution passed by the House and Senate and set before the people to decide if they want it,” Criss said, noting a desire to “allow private enterprising and private financing to maintain their own situation.”

Stollings said phasing out the task could hurt the county school system, which receives some support from the tax.

“The county school systems have gone from one of the highest paying systems to one of the lowest,” he said. “The inventory tax, if it’s taken away without any type of replacement, will be a further one-two punch to the area I represent.”

Boettner concurred that investments in education would be more difficult without the tax, and he said that phasing out the tax — at least as the plan was crafted last year — would only affect a select group.

“We’re talking about a select property for manufacturing, for coal, and maybe for some natural gas inventory,” he said.

Criss and Stollings said it was too soon to speculate on discussions about additional funding for teacher salaries or for maintenance of the Public Employees Insurance Agency plan. The panelists also lamented the loss of funding for higher education over the years.

“The big cuts in higher education have corresponded with rapidly rising tuition costs for students, which puts more debt on their backs, and then we have few people going to college,” Boettner said, noting that diversifying the economy depends on postsecondary education.

Diversifying the economy is something, too, that all panel members discussed.

“The pipeline business is going to continue,” Criss said. “I understand from the industry that plans for pipelines are coming out every day.”

But he added: “Until our economy diversifies to other things besides energy, we’re going to have a struggle when the energy market turns down.”

Stollings, too, noted the importance of diversification.

“You have to have the infrastructure investment and the education investment as you move forward,” he said.