Found Money

Lawmakers shouldn’t spend surplus

West Virginia legislators are taking something of a risk with this year’s budget — but give them credit for their motives.

On Friday, Gov. Jim Justice signed into law the budget for the coming fiscal year, beginning July 1. But in addition, he signed nine bills providing supplemental appropriations out of the current-year general revenue budget.

Additional spending authorized for this year boosts the Fiscal 2019 general revenue budget by about $191 million. The original budget, adopted about a year ago, called for $4.381 billion in spending.

More than half the newly authorized spending, at $105 million, is an additional taxpayer contribution to the Public Employees Insurance Agency. Both Justice and leading lawmakers promised last year to provide that money.

It is an investment not just in the PEIA’s future stability, but also something of an insurance policy for taxpayers. Though PEIA finances are expected to be stable for the next two to three years, the agency could need an infusion of cash after that. Providing additional funds now could lessen a shock down the road.

Other supplemental appropriations give neither legislators nor the governor many bragging points — but they were thoughtful, responsible reactions to real needs. Among recipients of additional funding are the corrections department, Civil Contingent Fund, free health care clinics, the Communities in Schools initiative and cyber security.

There is some reason for concern. The supplemental appropriations, about $191 million, seem reasonable in light of predictions the general revenue fund will have a $300 million surplus at the end of Fiscal 2019.

But eight months into the year, at the end of February, the surplus had built up to only about $53 million.

What happens if, say in mid-June, the surplus has not reached $191 million, much less $300 million?

The message to agencies receiving the supplemental appropriations is clear, then: Don’t spend it all immediately. If the surplus continues to lag behind hopes, a midyear spending cut may be necessary to ensure the budget is balanced on June 30. If that happens, the “found money” suddenly may be lost.

Better safe than sorry in dealing with it.