State needs to look at cuts

About a week ago, state Senate President Mitch Carmichael pledged that Republicans who control the West Virginia Legislature would not leave Gov. Jim Justice “out on a limb” in making major state spending cuts.

Well, someone got left out on a limb, but it wasn’t the governor. It was Carmichael and House of Delegates Speaker Tim Armstead.

For weeks, Carmichael, R-Jackson, and Armstead, R-Kanawha, had been under the impression Justice would call for substantive cuts to balance the state budget.

Days before Justice delivered his State of the State speech on Wednesday, Carmichael issued a press release. “The Senate stands ready to cooperate with Governor Justice as he makes these incredibly tough decisions” on budget cuts, he wrote.

Then the governor recommended the next budget be balanced with $600 million in tax increases, $123 million in Rainy Day money, and precious few spending cuts.

There are some cuts in Justice’s budget. Among them are erasing $4.6 million for the Educational Broadcasting Authority, eliminating all funding ($3.7 million) for regional education service agencies, erasing more than $1.6 million for scores of fairs and festivals throughout the state (along with more than $72,000 for the Wheeling Symphony Orchestra), etc.

But while Justice’s cuts will hurt some people badly, he did no more than nibble around the edges of the budget.

And some people in the bureaucracy have to be very happy with the governor.

Take the Department of Health and Human Services. That agency spent $1.096 billion during fiscal 2016, which ended last June 30. Justice wants $1.232 billion for the DHHR next year. That’s an increase of $136 million.

Or consider the state Department of Education. Justice wants to cut its spending — but his budget documents indicate it will have enough money for 564.4 employees (state agencies use FTEs, or fulltime equivalents, to report staffing). That’s just two FTEs fewer than the DOE had last year.

But when it comes to the paper pushers, there’s money for more people. The Department of Administration, with 916.35 FTEs last year, would get 925 under Justice’s budget.

Meanwhile, the Division of Highways would have fewer people to patch potholes. It had 5,434.25 FTEs last year. That would drop to 5,387 under Justice’s budget.

During his speech, Justice pledged to name a “waste czar” to go through government with a fine-toothed comb, finding inefficiencies and ways to save taxpayers money.

Obviously, that has yet to happen, judging by a quick look at some of the governor’s budget proposals.

Take, for example, his plan for the state Board of Barbers and Cosmetologists. Last year, the board had eight employees,

Next year, it needs 10, according to the governor’s budget documents.

For years, I’ve been suggesting the state ought to have something like a “waste czar” to look at everything state government does, and prioritize spending. It would make tough decisions on the budget easier.

I’ve also suggested that the bureaucrats’ best friend is the way we do budgets in West Virginia. Governors ask state agencies how much they need, write budgets, submit them to the Legislature and, within about 10 weeks, lawmakers usually approve them. There isn’t enough time to be really thoughtful about the process.

This year, legislators apparently took Justice at his word that he’d present them with deep cuts. He didn’t.

What do legislators do now? Well, there’s a disturbing possibility. Some of them have been talking about tax increases, too, though I suspect they didn’t have $600 million in mind.

The danger is that, with time to enact a new budget limited, anti-tax Republicans at the Capitol may declare defeat and go along with Justice.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net

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