Members in the House of Delegates have approved their budget bill for fiscal year 2018 – bringing $140 million additional dollars in revenue and making $75 million in cuts to government agencies. The House’s budget is largely based on revenue brought in under a Senate bill that was drastically changed by the chamber’s finance committee.
That bill, Senate Bill 484, originally would have just captured some $12 million a year that goes into the state Road Fund, but while it still contains the provision, it’s been transformed into what House leadership is calling a tax reform measure. The House’s version looks to broaden the base of taxable goods and services in two phases, July and then October of this year. Under the plan, things like cell phones or personal services would become subject to the sales tax, bringing in some $140 million in additional revenue in the 2018 budget.
The bill would also require that by July 2018, the state’s current 6 percent sales tax would be reduced to 5.5 percent, then to 5.25 percent in July 2019. Over time, if the fiscal climate is favorable in the state, the tax rate could go down to as low as 4.75 percent. That reduction of the overall rate will also lead to deficits in the state budget, that is if spending doesn’t increase in the state.
Majority Leader Daryl Cowles of Morgan County adamantly supports the measure, saying West Virginia’s border counties will see a boom in revenue.
“It’s tax relief for the people of West Virginia,” Cowles said, “It does capture revenue in the short-term, it is very quickly, within two short years, revenue neutral as the rate is lowered for everyone on every purchase, point of sale that’s taxed. And then, for another two years, the rate drops all the way down to 4.75. Imagine that. Imagine the growth our border counties could see if we have a competitive advantage at a tax rate of 4.75 considerably lower than all of our surrounding neighbors.”
But Minority Finance Chair Delegate Brent Boggs, of Braxton County, says he’s concerned this revenue idea lacks fairness.
“It seems like with this, when we’re talking about broadening the base, we’re really not broadening much, because it’s all the things that we’re not picking up, and we seem to be disproportionately hitting the people that are at the low income and middle income level, and possibly that takes in a lot of our seniors,” Boggs said.
After nearly two hours of debate, Senate Bill 484 passed 52 to 48.
In an evening floor session Wednesday, delegates also took up the chamber’s budget bill, House Bill 2018, which relies on $75 million in cuts to state agencies to balance the budget. The House’s budget no longer includes the 2 percent pay raise to classroom teachers first proposed by Gov. Jim Justice. It reduces funding for West Virginia four-year higher education institutions by 6 percent and the state’s community and technical colleges by 5 percent.
The budget also grants the Higher Education Policy Commission the authority to decide how the state’s higher education dollars will be divided between institutions.
It was this part of the budget that had some delegates in the House concerned. Several Democrats argued the provision is unconstitutional, including Delegate Rodney Miller, a Democrat from Boone County, who says the House had even considered getting rid of the organization at one point.
“It’s interesting that we are giving them the pot of money to let them be the arbitrator, the disseminator of this funding; letting them be the ultimate choice when at the same time," Miller said, "during this legislative session, we had, if I’m not mistaken, we had some legislation proposed to actually either get rid of or completely alter, significantly change the CTCs and HEPCs in our state. Now we’re going to give them all this power and authority and money. It’s very confusing with the consistency of what we have going on in this body.”
Democrat Mike Caputo, of Marion County, says allowing the HEPC to control higher education spending will result in a lack of accountability.
“These folks, they’re appointed for a certain term. They don’t have to account to the people; they don’t put their name on the ballot. We put our name on the ballot. And that bothers me,” Caputo explained. “I don’t know who come up with this crazy idea to throw all the money in one pot and just let some people toss it out how they feel without any accountability. Mr. Chairman, with all due respect, that to me is just absolutely irresponsible.”
Republican Delegate Mark Zatezalo, of Hancock County, spoke in support of the budget bill, and suggested the HEPC work more closely with the state’s colleges and universities than the Legislature does.
“We are allocating resources to two groups who have the most interface with higher education, and I’m wondering if they might have more insight into how things are spent at the higher education level than we do," Zatezalo noted. "I certainly, you know, I can see money go in and out of here, and I can see money allocated for schools; frankly I’m not in the weeds enough for each school to understand exactly what they need and exactly who needs the money.”
House Finance Chair Eric Nelson argued this was a tough budget year all around, but when it came to giving the HEPC the authority, it makes the most sense.
“I mentioned we had a bunch of agencies come before us to give budget presentations. The presentation for Higher Ed and CTC was made by HEPC and the CTC chancellors,” Nelson said. “It was not the individual colleges. You know what, we had very tough choices, and we’ve been in some unchartered territory. It’s been a balancing act. This balance is structurally sound; difficult decisions had to be made. Without a doubt, this has been an all-inclusive and a very transparent process.”
The House’s budget bill passed on a vote of 58 to 42.