HUNTINGTON — After more than a month of back-and-forth among 134 lawmakers, the budget for the State of West Virginia is in the hands of Gov. Jim Justice.
Whether Justice will sign or veto the budget is the biggest question among lawmakers, state employees, and citizens throughout the state, as a government shutdown looms when fiscal year 2018 begins on July 1.
Legislators approved the $4.225 billion budget on Friday, and Justice’s consideration of the budget continued into Monday, which had been the day that Justice’s Chief of Staff Nick Casey said was the last day for state officials to receive the budget to make the necessary accounting and system adjustment to start the fiscal year in a timely manner.
Lawmakers adjourned Friday, with plans to return to the session on Monday, June 26.
A bill regarding when state employees would be furloughed in the event of a fiscal emergency still lingered in the Legislature when lawmakers adjourned Friday.
On May 15, Casey instructed West Virginia’s cabinet secretaries to start developing a contingency plan for a potential shutdown in state government, but those plans were not made public during the special session.
Justice, in the past, said he was not inclined to sign a budget that relies heavily on cuts, even turning on the lantern atop the Capitol dome on March 21, saying that proposed cuts to the Department of Health and Human Resources were a potential health emergency for the state.
As of June 19, the lantern still was on, but the budget proposal before Justice did not include cuts to the DHHR, with particular emphasis from lawmakers that Medicaid, on paper, was fully funded.
The bulk of the cuts made in the budget were heaped on the state’s higher education system.
This budget spends roughly $85 million less than current fiscal year spending, West Virginia House of Delegates Communications Director Jared Hunt said in a news release.
The budget is bare-bones without any significant changes in the state’s taxes to generate more revenue to the state’s general revenue fund.
The proposed $4.225 billion general revenue fund of West Virginia’s budget accounts for 33 percent of the state’s total budget, which also includes federal dollars and grants. The general revenue fund is the portion of the budget legislators debate when they create the budget bill each legislative session, as federal dollars and other moneys already are allocated for particular use within the state.
Within that general revenue fund, about two-thirds of the money is required by the state constitution to be allocated to specific programs, including public K-12 education and Medicaid, but the spending of one-third of the money is up to legislators’ collective discretion.
Lawmakers attempted to pass tax reform measures to generate more money for the general revenue fund, but they weren’t able to reach a consensus, and talks on the reform seemed to stall out following a contentious meeting among Justice, lawmakers, and lobbyists representing the coal industry and higher education on June 15.
With all that said, the budget passed Friday will cut 2.4 percent for four-year public higher education institutions, with the exception of Shepherd University, which was not cut at all.
Marshall University and West Virginia University were cut 6.4 percent each, which equates to about $3.75 million lost for Marshall next year.
Community and technical colleges were cut 4.6 percent. Blue Ridge Community and Technical College was not affected by the cut.
Lawmakers avoided cuts to Medicaid with some creative planning and by transferring money from other government financial accounts into the Medicaid account.
For Medicaid, lawmakers set a revenue bar that, on paper, will provide the necessary funding to ensure the state will keep its federal match.
Current revenue estimates for the funds that support state Medicaid are short of that projection.
Money from the West Virginia Senate’s discretionary spending account and the state’s general lottery fund will be used to pay for Medicaid throughout the year, and money from estimated surpluses in the excess lottery surplus fund and the general revenue fund will be used to backfill the remaining balance for Medicaid at the end of fiscal year 2018.
If a budget bill approved by the legislature and signed by Justice isn’t filed by July 1, the state government will shut down.