Better safe than sorry on West Virginia budget

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice seems unable to resist any opportunity to belittle legislators, both Democrat and Republican. Last week he accused them of forcing some state agencies, including higher education, to reduce spending unnecessarily.

Indeed, lawmakers enacted a budget that, in order to avoid the massive tax increases Justice demanded, requires some spending discipline from government, including state colleges and universities. The budget was based on estimates of how much revenue the state will collect during the current year. Justice’s own administration furnished projections and legislators used their own best judgment on the numbers.

Last week, Justice’s administration pointed to improved conditions in the coal industry to insist the budget’s revenue assumptions, especially those on severance taxes, were wrong.

In a news release titled, “Jim Was Right: Coal Comeback Edition,” the governor’s communications staff noted that the U.S. Department of Commerce reports West Virginia’s economy enjoyed the second highest gross domestic product growth in the nation during the first quarter of this year.

“The report cited a 21.6 percent increase in mining activity nationwide as the reason for the uptick,” the governor’s staff noted.

Justice was quoted in the news release as saying he predicted the upswing “and that our severance tax collection would go up.” Yet lawmakers “failed to listen to the experts and my knowledge of the energy market (and) cut the budget and hurt our people when they didn’t have to,” the governor added.

In fact, legislators were behaving with commendable prudence. During the past few years, severance tax estimates have been substantially in excess of what actually was received. That was a major reason why mid-year spending cuts had to be ordered to keep the budget in balance.

It is simple common sense to do what legislators did: They passed a budget based on conservative revenue estimates — just as prudent West Virginia families do with our own household budgets.

If revenue, whether of severance taxes or from other sources, exceeds estimates for a few months, Justice may want to call lawmakers into a special session to reverse some of the spending cuts. No doubt they would be delighted to take such action.

But for now, they should not be criticized for, in effect, spending money they were not certain would be received. Better safe than sorry isn’t a bad philosophy.


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