Keep eyes open for new ideas
If you’re Gov. Jim Justice or a member of the West Virginia Legislature, you may be really excited about 2018. In contrast to the past couple of years, lawmakers’ regular session and budget deliberations ought to be a breeze.
Indeed, there has been some good news lately:
* Fifty-four of the state’s 55 counties reported business growth in September, according to Secretary of State Mac Warner.
* Revenue collections for the general revenue fund exceeded estimates by nearly $11.5 million in September.
* State government investments are doing very well. During the 2016-17 budget year, the Investment Management Board enjoyed a 15.8 percent return — perhaps the best in the country. Assets grew by $1.57 billion.
* And, of course, there are all those employment opportunities coming as a result of voter approval of the road bond issue. Gov. Jim Justice has said that may mean as many as 48,000 new jobs.
So, the sound you’re hearing from Charleston may be state officials joining in a chorus of, “We’re in the money!”
I just hate to spoil a politicians’ party, but it’s way, way too soon to declare the Mountain State is out of the fiscal woods.
* There are signs businesses may be doing better. In addition to the information from Warner, the September revenue report contained a good sign. Corporate net income tax collections had been estimated at $20.2 million. They came in at nearly $32 million. But let’s wait until after the Christmas shopping season to declare victory.
* September’s revenue was good — but for the full first quarter of the fiscal year, the general revenue fund remained $7.8 million in the red.
* Good for the state’s investment wizards! That 15.8 percent return was excellent, but, as they say, easy come, easy go. During the previous year, the investment funds lost $470 million.
* Finally, it will be very surprising if anywhere near 48,000 jobs are created by the road bond projects. Some of them will go to construction company employees from outside the state. All of them will last only as long as bridges and highways are being built.
In other words, Justice and legislators need to continue pinching pennies. Next winter and spring, as the state budget is being hashed out, will be far too early to count on additional money for the general revenue fund. Austerity still needs to be the watchword until we know with certainty the skies have turned blue.
What if the economy, revenue collections and investment returns keep trending upward? What if we are finally out of the woods?
What do the governor and lawmakers do with the “new” money?
The first thing they need to do is close their office doors and post sentries to keep out the horde of state agency heads who will be demanding more money. Rest assured, they will descend on the Capitol like a horde of locusts.
But here’s the thing: We are operating under what the folks in Charleston insist is a tight-belt environment now. Have you noticed any catastrophic drop in state services?
No, you haven’t. So tell the agency heads to stop whining and get back to work.
There are lots and lots of ways to spend any “found money.” One of them is battling the substance abuse epidemic. We West Virginians are going nowhere fast if we can’t assure potential job creators that we have available a workforce that can pass the drug screening test.
If there’s money left over after that task is addressed, Justice and legislators shouldn’t just pour it down the bureaucracy’s rathole. They ought to think big, as I suggested earlier this month, with really innovative new programs that may pave the way to a better future for our state.
We can always find ways to spend money in West Virginia government. How about we find some new, really progressive ones instead of the same old, same old?
Mike Myer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.