Lawmakers take another swipe at budget cutting

Hoppy’s Commentary
Author Keith Davis said, “We didn’t actually overspend our budget. The allocation simply fell short of our expenditure.”

It’s a funny sort of double-speak about spending, especially as it relates to government. The public spending paradigm is often upside down: If the government spends more than it takes in, the focus too often is on getting more money rather than evaluating the merits of the spending.

Now Republican leaders of the West Virginia Legislature say they’re going to take a hard look at how the state spends taxpayer dollars and figure out how to bring spending in line with revenue instead of looking for additional revenue to keep up with spending.

They have created the Joint Select Committee on Government Accountability, Transparency and Efficiency, (the GATE Committee), a bi-partisan group of nine Senators and nine Delegates who are charged with finding ways to streamline government and reduce spending.

House Speaker Tim Armstead hopes an out-of-session committee will be more effective. “It was difficult to make some of those decisions in a Special Session with the clock running up against July 1st,” Armstead said on Talkline Monday. “That’s why this is, I think, a better way to do that.”

Well, maybe.

The Republicans, now two years into leadership, talk continuously about reducing state spending, but their deeds have not always matched their words. The Republican-led finance committees have met repeatedly, going point-by-point through the budget, but they struggled to make substantive cuts to match declining revenues due to the coal slump.

Yes, they trimmed about $45 million in the final budget for this fiscal year, but Governor Tomblin has cut $400 million out of the base budget of over $4 billion over the last three years through across-the-board reductions. Republicans talk about finding efficiencies and eliminating wasteful programs, but have yet to deliver substantial cuts.

The GATE Committee is supposed to be different, but it won’t be easy. Virtually every expenditure by government has a constituency group that can justify the need. Additionally, even budget hawk politicians get weak-kneed when the cut impacts their district or supporters.

Tomblin’s across-the-board cuts have helped keep the budget balanced, but those reductions treat all services (except those exempted) the same, regardless of their necessity or effectiveness.

GATE should ask larger questions as it examines myriad state agencies and services: What is the goal of the program and what are the results? Should the service provided be the responsibility of the government (taxpayers)? What are the priorities of government?

Next year’s budget has a projected deficit of about $300 million, with a similar shortfall projected for the following year. The Governor and the Legislature labored to raise the cigarette tax by .65 cents (to $1.20 per pack) to balance this year’s budget, so it’s hard to imagine another significant tax increase as long as Republicans maintain control of the Legislature in the November election.

That makes the work of the GATE Committee critical. This will be a test not only of effective governance, but also of the political will necessary to make tough decisions.