How to cut the state budget

West Virginia’s state Department of Education has 566 employees overseeing public schools. That’s more than 10 for each county school system in the state.

What do all those people do?

That would be a good place for state legislators to start as they find ways to reduce government spending.

It can be done. Here are some ideas:

– What about a 10 percent, across the board reduction in general revenue spending, which is around $4.3 billion of what the state spends each year? That would save nearly all the $466 million some analysts say needs to be cut.

Critics of that approach say it’s irresponsible. Really? It didn’t seem irresponsible to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. His budget proposal calls for reducing Division of Highways employment by 566 people – more than 10 percent of the current workforce.

– Speaking of the size of state government, can anyone in the Capitol Complex explain to me why we need 41,139 state employees next year? Ten years ago, state government got by with about 37,680. What are those 3,459 people doing that wasn’t necessary a decade ago?

And, by the way, how many of them work in Charleston, rather than in state police barracks, highways garages, etc., where they provide real service to the people of West Virginia?

– Would the state Department of Education be a good place to reduce employment? A few years ago, consultants recommended cutting back on the state education bureaucracy. How’d that work out?

Well, budget documents from 10 years ago show the DOE funded for the equivalent of 523 full time employees (FTEs), not counting those at the School Building Authority, schools for the deaf and blind, and the FFA-FHA camp. Now, after the consultants’ report and after some legislators called for cuts at the DOE, the number is … 566.

But wait. The governor has called for some cutbacks at the agency. He wants to reduce employment at the DOE-operated Schools for the Deaf and Blind by nearly four FTEs.

Tomblin also wants the main DOE office in Charleston to get nearly four new FTEs, however. That would take the education bureaucracy up to about 570 people.

Are that many really necessary?

– In a similar vein, why does the Department of Health and Human Resources need the nearly 100 new employees called for in the governor’s budget? That would take DHHR strength up to 6,501 FTEs.

– Before anything else is done on the budget, legislators need to be certain it’s not based on wishful thinking.

At this point, it is.

Let’s start with the General Revenue Budget, which is around one-third of the total the state spends.

Tomblin says his General Revenue Budget proposal, of $4.32 billion, is balanced. Legislators, at about a million less, say the same.

But this year’s General Revenue Budget is only about $4.30 billion – and the state isn’t collecting enough revenue to support it. By the end of February, we were $40 million behind anticipated collections – and transfers within accounts may have made that look overly optimistic.

So if revenue isn’t covering this year’s budget, how can we expect more income for a bigger spending plan?

It gets worse. Tomblin wants to spend $1.25 billion in the State Road Fund. Legislators want $1.38 billion. This year’s State Road Fund is $1.18 billion. Where’s that additional $200 million or so going to be found?

There are other, smaller – but not insignificant – holes in revenue. Suffice it to say they are worse than questionable. They’re simply not real.

Claiming a budget is balanced by using inflated revenue figures is an invitation to disaster later in the fiscal year.

Some legislators are blaming Tomblin for unrealistic revenue estimates. Fine. Call the state’s financial wizards – and we have some really good ones – in and ask them for revenue estimates.

Good luck getting that done in the three days allotted for hashing out details of the budget, though.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.