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W.Va. needs a plan for long-term state finances

March 23, 2004

The West Virginia Legislature successfully balanced the state's budget this past Sunday, but not with increased taxes, as Gov. Bob Wise had proposed.

Instead, lawmakers cut agency budgets and more troubling, relied on a number of funding sources that can only be used once. As long as lawmakers keep avoiding the hard choices, the state's budget will continue to be a cobbled-together attempt to get through each year instead of being a real spending plan for the future.

On the plus side, the $3.07 billion budget passed Sunday provided $269 million for higher education, more than the governor had sought. And it dedicates $10 million per year in future lottery revenues for college campus improvements.

Another $4 million annually from racetrack video lottery revenues will go toward a fund Wise proposed creating to pay for scientific research on the state's college campuses.

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But that and other spending initiatives didn't come without some pain. The Tourism Commission's share of racetrack revenues went from 3 percent to 1.3 percent, leaving the state with only $11 million a year for its visitor-promotion campaign.

If you're a state lottery winner you'll pay state and local taxes on your winnings for the first time.

If you hunt or fish, you'll pay an additional $3 to your home county for the privilege. And if you own a billboard business with more than 20 locations, you'll pay a new $1,000 licensing fee. If you're on parole, the $20 monthly fee you pay now will go to $40.

More troublesome were these cuts: $19 million from the School Building Authority, $12 million for new school buses, $19.5 million from the Department of Administration and $7.2 million for the Division of Corrections.

If you talked to legislative leaders about this budget, we're sure they would say they did what they had to do to get the figures to balance, given the drop in revenue estimated for the next budget year.

What really has to be done by the new Legislature and the next governor is to either trim government down to a size where it can be funded without the wild fluctuations in spending we've seen in recent years, or find new sources of revenue.

That's not an argument for new or increased taxes, but for a better system, so that those in higher education and other departments of state government can plan their operations more than six months in advance.

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