Scrambling

Legislators trying to keep promises

State legislators and Gov. Jim Justice may find themselves scrambling this week to keep all the promises made to West Virginians during the past several months. Pay raises for public employees, new subsidies for their health insurance program, a tax break for coal companies and new initiatives against drug abuse were among the pledges.

And there was that vow to give older people a break on their state income taxes.

Acting on that promise, House of Delegates members, in a 96-1 vote, approved a bill to exempt Social Security old-age benefits from state income taxes.

Now the state Senate has the bill, HB 2001, and budget realities are setting in. Too many promises were made. Keeping them, while balancing the budget, will be difficult.

Two-thirds of the way through the fiscal year, income for the general revenue budget was $53 million ahead of estimates at the end of February. That sounds good, and in many ways, it is. But at that rate, there are serious questions about whether the state will take in enough new revenue next year to cover all the expenditures being envisioned now.

Exempting Social Security old-age benefits from state income taxes alone would cost the state about $50 million a year.

Still, a promise was made to older West Virginians. State Senate negotiators may have found a way to keep it, at least partially.

Senators are poised to approve HB 2001, but with amendments. One of them would phase in the tax exemption over three years. During the first year, 35 percent of the tax would be eliminated. The second year, 65 percent would be exempted. Then, the third year, senior citizens would get the full benefit on their state tax returns.

That version of the bill would cost the state only $10 million to $16 million the first year. That is doable, even with concern over balancing the budget.

Is the Senate bill a perfect solution? Many senior citizens will not think so. But it is a responsible start toward keeping the promise and, as such, House of Delegates members should accept it.

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