Imagine that your spouse just handed the checkbook to you and said, “Balance this for me, honey.”
You are happy to do so, and since your finances are tight it is important that you keep track of every dollar. Not long after you begin work, you realize that he or she made a mistake — a very large check has been written and is about to be charged to your account. The problem is that you don’t have enough in the account to cover it.
For the record my wife would never do this.
The paragraph above is not a perfect analogy, but it puts the Legislature’s situation in terms that just about anyone can relate to. The “mistake” I mentioned was for about $450 million. Following that, we also learned we needed to cover another $92 million shortfall. Both of those amounts were for the 2017 budget year and they were made by the governor’s financial analysts. This is not meant to be a criticism of anyone but is the circumstance created by an out-of-control EPA and low global energy prices that have severely harmed West Virginia’s major industries.
So here we are in a special session directed by the governor to complete a balanced budget, and according to the state constitution he has specific authority to determine what the Legislature can do. Our job is to either reduce spending or raise taxes to fill a hole in the 2017 budget. We also had to fill an unexpected shortfall of $111 million in the 2016 budget.
The governor’s proposal to fill the shortfalls is to raise taxes on West Virginians. Those proposals included raising sales taxes, cellphone service taxes, and tobacco taxes.
This week in the House of Delegates, a tax increase on all people who buy tobacco products was voted down. I voted no because most of the district that I represent includes communities that border Ohio. In fact, about half of West Virginia’s population lives in border communities. It has been proven elsewhere that people will simply cross into neighboring states to buy products that are cheaper. In that case, there is no reduction in tobacco use, and rather than increasing revenue to West Virginia we would actually collect less revenue. We would also lose businesses and jobs that are dependent on customers from West Virginia as well as many who travel a short distance from Ohio to buy products here in our community.
Understanding that raising taxes on a small population may poll well, the difficult work to streamline government by closely reviewing the financial management and performance of each department and program is a necessity. The current budget circumstance has allowed me and several other delegates to look more closely than ever at balances in previously overlooked accounts where taxpayer money can be redirected for better uses.
Delegates Moffatt from Putnam County, Delegate Sobonya from Cabell County, and Delegate Kurcaba from Monongalia County, among others, have spent weeks helping me work through some of this long before the special session was even scheduled. We have found tens of millions of dollars to apply to the shortfalls, and we will be working continuously to find and better manage the state.
The alternative to raising taxes to increase revenue to the state is to grow our economy by making West Virginia a better place for existing businesses, as well as attracting new job creating businesses. In the last two years, legislation has been passed to make West Virginia more appealing to job creators in many ways. It will take some time, but as they see that West Virginia is truly “open for business,” I am certain that West Virginians will enjoy greater opportunities for jobs and prosperity. When we get our people back to work, we will have more people paying into the system which lightens the load on all taxpayers. Those improvements will allow us to fund necessary programs for schools, public employees, senior citizens, veterans and anyone else who truly needs assistance.
We all need and appreciate your prayers as we work through this difficult budget situation. We will come out stronger and better prepared for the opportunities to come.
Jim Butler represents the 14th District in the West Virginia House of Delegates.