Avoid wishful thinking on budget

One of the primary responsibilities of governors and legislators in West Virginia is to avoid a return to the bad old days of unbalanced budgets. To that end, Gov. Jim Justice’s spending proposals require realistic scrutiny.

For several years, before the Justice administration, revenue estimates coming from the governor’s office were flawed. But legislators accepted them and enacted spending plans based, frankly, on wishful thinking.

Then, when revenue failed to match expectations, midyear spending cuts and taking money from the emergency Rainy Day Fund had to be employed to keep budgets balanced.

Justice says those days are over. He points to revenue for the first six months of this fiscal year that exceeds predictions by about $185 million. A $300 million year-end surplus is forecast.

So the governor is asking lawmakers to approve a fiscal 2020 general revenue budget of $4.675 billion. That is nearly $300 million more than the current spending plan.

But there is more. In addition, Justice wants to use supplemental appropriations to increase spending this year. How much he intends to seek is unclear. One target for increased current-year spending could be the $150 million supplemental appropriation promised for the Public Employees Insurance Agency.

Some legislators — of both parties, it should be noted — worry the governor may be too optimistic. That contention is reinforced by a report noting that much of the current revenue boost is due to highway and pipeline construction projects that will end later this year.

A one-time $150 million addition to state funding for the PEIA at least would not be a recurring expense in subsequent years.

But the additional 5 percent pay raise for state employees promised by the governor, along with other initiatives on his agenda, would have to be funded every year.

In fairness, it has to be emphasized that Justice’s proposals — a new initiative against drug abuse, for example — are not frivolous. Our state has many very real needs.

But someone has to pay the piper, so to speak. West Virginians cannot take a repetition of the years of budgets based on wishful thinking.