CHARLESTON – Now that the dust has settled, and the static has quieted a little, I think there’s an opportunity to reflect a little bit about the past couple of months in terms of wins and losses for our state’s taxpayers.
Just a few weeks ago, the Legislature passed a balanced budget during the regular 60-day session – something that hadn’t been done in more than 30 years. The budget passed unanimously in the face of circumstances and pressure that could not possibly be underestimated: A statewide teachers’ strike that kept our students out of school for nine days, debate over a new pay raise proposal, and disagreement between the House and Senate about the best path to resolution.
But in the end, through compromise, the Legislature was able to do something remarkable by not only completing the budget without the need of a $35,000-per-day extended session, but also by providing the largest cumulative pay increase for our public employees ever.
The 2019 Fiscal Year Budget Bill provides more than $150 million in increased benefits and compensation to our state’s public employees, including $29 million to PEIA to ensure that there were no changes to the plan in the coming year. The Legislature did this without using a single penny from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, and most importantly, without raising any taxes at all.
The Senate, despite significant pressure to do otherwise, also maintained that the only responsible way to balance this budget was without the Governor’s newly found, last-minute $58 million increase to state revenue projections. One of the fundamental concepts of responsibility to the taxpayer is to not write checks we can’t cash. Right now, we can’t cash that check. If things continue to look up for our economy, we have the ability to go in and supplement the budget with that additional revenue. Until then, we chose to believe the only acceptable path forward was one based in reality, not hypotheticals.
There isn’t a single legislator in Charleston – Republican or Democrat – who doesn’t believe our teachers deserve to be paid more for their work. The difference, however, is there was only one group at the Capitol who wasn’t willing to promise something it wasn’t certain it could deliver: The Senate Republicans.
Make no mistake about it, it’s easy to promise and vote for big pay raises without any consideration as to how the state should pay for them. It’s quite another thing to commit to being fiscally responsible and providing pay raises in the context of what you can afford, not what you hope you can afford.
While I know we were all thrilled to be able to provide these pay raises, it’s worth mentioning the things that we had to sacrifice this year to see those come to fruition. We had to make cuts to Medicaid. (Fortunately for those who rely on these services, we were able to cover those cuts with cash reserves and transfers of Lottery surplus funds.) We had to shelve a plan that would have provided free community and technical college to West Virginians. Our goal of full civil justice reform had to take a back seat for another year when we couldn’t advance our plan for an Intermediate Court of Appeals. And, lastly, a constitutional amendment that would have repealed West Virginia’s burdensome, job-killing business inventory and equipment tax had to come off the table.
While those may seem like three small bills in the scope of a full legislative session, I don’t think you can overstate the cost of those three. All of them directly address critical components that we need to continue moving West Virginia’s economy forward. We need an educated and drug-free workforce. We need a fundamentally fair legal system. We definitely need a tax structure that doesn’t strangle opportunities for growth.
What do all of those lead to, you may wonder? With more business and development, it leads to an increased tax base. More revenue pouring into our state’s coffers – revenue that isn’t tied to the volatility of natural resource prices – means more money to provide our teachers, school service personnel, State Police, and other employees with better salaries and better benefits.
West Virginia is truly at a crossroads, and I believe that through stable, responsible Republican leadership, we have laid a foundation that primes us for our next steps forward. With our commitment to the principles of controlling government spending and tearing down the economic barriers that hold us back, West Virginia’s potential is limitless.
Ferns, R-Ohio, represents the First Senatorial District, which includes Hancock, Brooke and Ohio counties as well as part of Marshall County. He also is the Senate Majority Leader.