$100M W.Va. deficit a 'conservative figure'

Legislator said the shortfall should not be plugged with money reserved for emergencies

Legislator said the shortfall should not be plugged with money reserved for emergencies

November 03, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

HEDGESVILLE, W.Va. -- State Senate Finance Committee chairman Walt Helmick said Tuesday that he believes a $100 million deficit projected for West Virginia state government by the end of the current budget year is a "conservative figure" that could actually get higher.

In an interview after he and other area lawmakers met with Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan county commissioners about their legislative priorities, Helmick said the shortfall should not be simply plugged with "rainy day" money that has been reserved for emergencies.

"We shouldn't be dealing with those savings accounts until we consider the issue of possible major cutbacks," said the Pocahontas County Democrat, whose sprawling nine-county district includes part of Berkeley County and all of Morgan.

At the third Eastern Panhandle legislative summit held at The Woods Resort on Tuesday, Helmick said legislative action that is needed to allow West Virginia counties to fully tap into federal stimulus bond money could be addressed later this month in a special session of the state Legislature.


"It is being looked at very seriously" by Gov. Joe Manchin, Helmick said.

Berkeley County Commissioner William L. "Bill" Stubblefield told lawmakers on Tuesday that in addition to needing legislation to allow the bonds to be used for economic development projects in municipalities, the county wanted the state to establish a way to divert American Recovery and Reinvestment Act bonds not used by other counties to those that may be interested in more.

"I would be very, very surprised if the Eastern Panhandle does not ask for additional bonds if a pool is established," Stubblefield said.

The Eastern Panhandle counties are now eligible to allocate about $53 million of the $225 million that was awarded to West Virginia for private and public sector projects meant to stimulate the economy and create jobs, according to county officials.

"There's a significant number (of counties) that will not utilize the money," Helmick said.

Stubblefield, who took the lead in presenting the counties' legislative priorities, renewed the commissioners' united call for changes that would lower their Eastern Regional Jail bills, increase the homestead exemption for seniors and permanently handicapped, recalculate prevailing wage and allow earlier bar closing times to match those in neighboring Maryland and Virginia.

Lawmakers also heard from Shamus Cleveland, a community development specialist with the West Virginia Prevention Resource Center (WVPRC).

Cleveland asked lawmakers to consider increasing the tax on beer, which he said would be the first increase since 1966. If adopted, the revenue should be spent on substance abuse prevention.

He also asked lawmakers to codify the West Virginia Partnership to Promote Community Well-Being, a substance abuse prevention and intervention planning entity that was created through an executive order of Gov. Bob Wise in 2004.

In fiscal year 2006, the estimated cost of substance use in the Eastern Panhandle was $174.3 million, with most of the direct and indirect expenses being in Berkeley County ($104.6 million), according to the WVPRC.

Cleveland said after the meeting that the cost totals included the direct expenses for such services as law enforcement, judicial costs and medical treatment and indirect costs such as lost productivity and absenteeism at work and workers compensation.

Of every dollar the state spends on substance abuse, Shamus said 99.6 cents is spent "shoveling up the mess." Only .4 cents is used to prevent and treat it, he said.

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