Responsible spending still yields raises

It’s been said money is the root of all evil. Not really. Real evil, at least in government, is spending money you don’t have.

Here in West Virginia, our constitution doesn’t allow us to do that — technically. There’s a way around it, to which we’ll get in a moment.

Mountain State legislators are not permitted to approve budgets in excess of what the governor tells them is expected to be collected during the coming year. As a result, we have nothing comparable to the national debt. We do owe money for bonds such as those sold to improve highways, but revenue streams are in place to pay them off.

There’s no comparable restraint in the U.S. Constitution. That’s why we have a national debt of $21.7 trillion — about $177,000 for each American taxpayer.

Give credit to our state’s founders, then, for insisting that budgets be balanced every year.

And give credit to state legislators, both Republican and Democrat, for trying hard — mostly — to spend only what they expected to take in.

Compare the federal budget to West Virginia’s general revenue fund budget:

Ten years ago, the federal government spent $3.517 trillion (about $1.3 trillion more than receipts). This year, the budget is $4.406 trillion. That’s an increase of 25.3 percent.

During the same period, West Virginia’s general revenue budget went from $3.902 billion to $4.439 billion — an increase of just 13.7 percent. I suspect the inflation rate was higher than that.

Even more interesting is the fact that for several years while the state’s economy was in the tank, budgets were stagnant. Lawmakers authorized $4.149 billion in general revenue spending during fiscal 2013 — an amount that had gone up to only $4.187 billion by fiscal 2017.

But there was a catch: During the last few years of former Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s administration, when Democrats controlled the Legislature, spending exceeded income for the general revenue fund. We all remember the infamous midyear spending cuts.

What many people didn’t notice was the drained “Rainy Day Fund,” which was supposed to be set aside for emergencies.

Tomblin and Democrats dipped into that fund deeply. In September 2014, it held $884.9 million. By September 2017, the amount was down to $642.4 million.

So, as Democrats desperate to hold power tried to avoid budget cuts, they did engage in $220 million in deficit spending.

And they couldn’t manage a pay raise for school employees and other state workers.

Which brings us to now. As I’ve written several times during the past few months, Republicans who now control the Legislature — after more than 80 years of Democrat domination — deserve credit, not condemnation, for how they handled pay raises last spring.

It would have been easy, and the politically smart thing, for them to have approved pay hikes at the drop of a hat. They could have done that by resorting to the Democrat strategy: Pass a budget you know isn’t really balanced, use midyear spending cuts to keep it out of the red, and dip deeply into the Rainy Day fund to cover the rest. No one would have noticed another Rainy Day decline of, say, $80 million to cover 5 percent raises.

But the GOP lawmakers refused to do that. Also, incidentally, they rejected a proposal to give school employees raises while leaving other state employees out.

Not until Gov. Jim Justice assured them that revenue would pick up this year (it has) enough to cover the raises did Republican legislators approve 5 percent boosts for everyone. It turns out revenue collections are good enough they will add another 5 percent to that in a few months.

Even while they were, in effect, cheating on the no-deficit rule in our constitution, Democrat lawmakers didn’t come up with raises.

Republicans did — responsibly. That, as they say, is the bottom line.

Mike Myer can be reached at mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

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