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Gov. Wise addresses fiscal woes

December 11, 2002|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

MARTINSBURG - During a meeting broadcast via satellite Tuesday morning, West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise discussed the state's projected budget shortfall of $250 million with state employees and asked for help.

The forum, billed as a town hall meeting, was broadcast live from Charleston, W.Va., to 14 sites around the state, including the Martinsburg-Berkeley County Public Library.

More than 30 people were on hand at the library for the 90-minute forum.

Wise warned that budget digest funds will be "greatly affected," but said neither education nor economic development funding initiatives would be cut. He said early buyouts probably were unlikely for employees nearing retirement.

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He did not mention layoffs, saying only, "We will do everything possible to avoid dislocations."

Wise asked employees to offer suggestions on how the state government can save money. He said those suggestions could be mailed or e-mailed anonymously, or signed.

"I believe by working together we can find the solutions we seek," he said.

Throughout the program, he stressed that simple cuts and one-time fixes would not be enough.

It would be possible to hack $250 million from the state's $2.9 billion general fund budget, but "there would be an incredible amount of blood on the floor to do that," he said. Such a solution would be temporary and would not prevent similar shortfalls in future years, he said.

"The only way we can take care of the problem is to restructure how we're doing business," Wise said.

Programs that are performing poorly should be eliminated and overlapping or duplicated services should be reduced, he said.

Employees should be rewarded for saving money, work force costs should be reduced and technology should be used to cut costs and operate more efficiently, Wise said.

Addressing the budget crisis begins with examining whether the jobs that 3,000 to 4,000 people will vacate this year by retiring or resigning are crucial, or whether they could be left unfilled, Wise said.

Answering a question from an audience member, Wise said the state has implemented hiring restrictions, not a freeze. Essential employees who quit or retire will be replaced, he said.

Wise said there are several reasons for the budget shortfall: Costs associated with Medicaid are increasing, severance taxes are down and sales tax revenues are lower than expected.

Wise said he favors increasing the per-pack tax on cigarettes, which has been 17 cents since 1978. He said raising the cigarette tax to 55 cents per pack would yield $60 million, or enough money to erase about one-fourth of the budget shortfall. And for every dollar raised on the state level, $3 would be contributed by the federal government for health care costs, Wise said.

In the interim, Wise has asked that all state agencies cut their budgets by 3.4 percent.

Kathy Boylan, administrator for the Department of Health and Human Resources for Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties, did not attend the meeting because she was under the impression it would not be broadcast locally, she said.

By Tuesday afternoon, she had heard the gist of Wise's speech.

Because Health and Human Resources employees are considered essential, she said she is not worried about filling vacancies. However, the governor's mandate that all state agencies cut their budgets does concern her.

"It's going to be devastating," she said. "I don't have 3 percent to cut."

She said most of her department's programs rely on state money, matched with federal dollars. Cutting one will cut the other, she said.

Boylan said she has looked at every possible avenue where funding might be cut. None is possible, she said.

Traveling to court or clients' homes is required, and employees must work overtime if they receive a call after hours that a child may be endangered, she said.

She said it's too early to tell whether the average person who uses the DHHR's services will be affected. About 100 people work for the DHHR in the Eastern Panhandle, handling 12,000 social and economic services cases, Boylan said.

Many of the state employees who attended the meeting at the library declined to speak to reporters.

In Charleston, one state employee's comments to Wise drew murmurs from the crowd. She criticized the government, saying officials pay too much for office supplies and use taxpayers' money for coffee, dunking booths and trips. Adding that she considered herself poor, she said low state salaries force many to live from paycheck to paycheck.

"Please don't ask your crew to pass the bucket after the ship has already sunk," she said.

In response, Wise said the ship has not yet sunk, and that he is trying to avoid those shoals.

West Virginia is not the only state facing budget problems. Virginia faces a shortfall of $5.3 billion; Pennsylvania, $1.25 billion; and Maryland, $1.5 billion, Wise said.

When the state Legislature convenes Jan. 8, Wise must present lawmakers with a balanced budget.

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