During his State of the State address, Gov. Jim Justice presented the Legislature with an essentially flat budget — again. There is a slight increase of about 5.53%, from $4.636 billion to $4.884 billion, that accommodates a 5% raise for most state employees as well as a one-time cash infusion for the Public Employees Insurance Agency and a small boost to school funding.
Justice’s persistent flat budgets have contributed to astronomical surpluses the last few years — on track to be over $1 billion this fiscal year — but they have also contributed to the abysmal failure of multiple state agencies.
It’s all over the headlines that the Department of Health and Human Resources is in disarray, the foster care system is a mess, schools are desperate for teachers and the Department of Corrections is so understaffed the National Guard had to step in. Don’t get us started on the state of the roads. But that’s what happens when you chronically underfund essential state services.
The DHHR started allowing retirees to come back and offering bonuses because it can’t hire enough social workers — who must have at least a master’s degree, by the way — to keep up with the sheer number of kids entering the foster system; plus, there’s a shortage of families willing to become foster parents. The DOC and public schools have been hemorrhaging employees for the last several years because the pay isn’t worth the hardships of the job.
Part of the massive surplus we’re seeing is from hundreds of state jobs left unfilled, in large part because of uncompetitive wages. A 5% increase will be nice, but it doesn’t make up the difference in recent cost of living increases, and an across-the-board raise won’t draw qualified applicants to the specific positions that have gone unoccupied.
The other part of the surplus is a mix of one-time federal funds and higher than expected severance taxes on coal and natural gas. But those federal funds won’t be coming again next year, and the fossil fuel market can vary widely.
But it gets worse. On top of an artificially low budget, Justice proposes slashing personal income taxes by 50%, while the Legislature considers cutting personal property taxes. As Justice put it, it will be a “tsunami” that “will absolutely put unbelievable monies right back into all of our pockets.”
It’ll be a tsunami all right — one that washes away what little of West Virginia’s physical and social infrastructure remains. As West Virginia Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy explained, Justice’s budget plan will reduce total revenue. So when those federal dollars dry up and severance taxes dip, there will be no revenue stream to make up for the loss.
Instead of throwing one-time payments and spit-in-the bucket increases at West Virginia’s most pressing problems, the governor and the Legislature need to build stable funding into the yearly budgets. While that means higher expenses and less surplus, essential agencies will finally be able to adequately perform their duties. And if there are still surpluses after a few years of properly funded state services, then tax cuts should be considered.