This op-ed on the state budget crisis and all that comes with it appeared in today's Charleston Gazette-Mail.
It looks like West Virginia’s politicians are about to let the wrecking ball swing across the state budget.
It’s likely to seriously damage things like schools, public safety, job training, higher education, care for seniors and kids, health services, infrastructure, libraries, state parks and forests and other things that make our state livable to hundreds of thousands of state residents.
Not to be too Trumpian about it, but this is sad. Bigly.
The saddest part is that leaders are talking about the coming cuts as if they were a product of some kind of stern cosmic necessity.
Actually they aren’t.
And they’re saying things like, “We have to make these cuts.”
Actually “We” don’t. And neither do they.
And if they decide to cut the things that make life livable to current residents and attractive to future residents and investors, that’s on them. It will be because of deliberate actions they took or failed to take.
It’s true that some of West Virginia’s budget difficulties stem from declines in our traditional industries. But it’s also true that some of these wounds are self-inflicted. Around 10 years ago, state leaders decided to slash hundreds of millions of dollars from state revenues.
The idea was that business tax cuts would create jobs. But we have around 6,000 fewer private sector jobs now than in 2008.
This shouldn’t be a surprise. State taxes are a tiny part of the total cost of doing business — around 3 percent, some of which is deductible on federal taxes. This pales in comparison to things like labor, transportation, communication and such, all of which require public investments.
Meanwhile, higher education spending declined in both relative and absolute terms. The cost of tuition more than doubled in a state with the nation’s lowest higher education attainment — and the low incomes that come with that.
In fact, the amount of revenue lost to business tax cuts could have provided free college tuition and fees to all in-state public college and university students. With some left over.
That would have been a game changer, but it was the road not taken.
Incredibly, in spite of any and all evidence, some politicians want to cut taxes further. Some even want to shift burdens to working and low-income people by replacing income taxes with sales taxes.
While that might sound good, income taxes are progressive in that those with more income pay at a slightly higher rate. But lower income people by necessity spend more of their money than those better off — and they’d pay a higher share if that change is enacted.
I call to witness Adam Smith, prophet of capitalism and author of The Wealth of Nations. He said:
“The subjects of every state ought to contribute towards the support of the government, as nearly as possible, in proportion to their respective abilities; that is, in proportion to the revenue which they respectively enjoy under the protection of the state.”
“It is not very unreasonable that the rich should contribute to the public expense, not only in proportion to their revenue, but something more than in that proportion ... . It must always be remembered, however, that it is the luxuries, and not the necessary expense of the inferior ranks of people, that ought ever to be taxed.”
This addiction to tax cuts when the state is on the verge of failing reminds me of the literal addictions that have poisoned the lives of so many West Virginians. But policy makers have less excuse than those driven by the desperate pangs of physical addiction.
And if legislators think there’s no support for protecting West Virginia’s assets, they’re wrong. Recently Anzalone Liszt Grove Research, a national polling firm, conducted a statewide survey of 603 registered voters.
They asked this question: “thinking about the state taxes you pay, would you be willing or not willing to maintain funding for public schools, Public safety, and aging roads and bridges in West Virginia, even if that meant raising your own state taxes?”
The answer may surprise some people. Seventy percent of statewide voters said yes, including 79 percent of self-identified Democrats, 69 percent of Independents and 63 percent of Republicans.
Voters were particularly protective of education. Nearly 90 percent were opposed, most of them strongly so, to laying off teachers, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and aids or of other K-12 educational funding cuts.
Next on the list of priorities was support for state parks and the Department of Natural Resources, which is not surprising in a state full of lovers of the outdoors — and those aware of the importance of tourism to our economy.
Other priorities supported by an overwhelming majority included higher education, support for drug treatment, public health programs and the Promise Scholarship. Most voters think this is a very serious problem and think the problem is too many tax cuts rather than too few spending cuts.
There are plenty of revenue options if legislators are willing to step up. It’s a question of priorities. In the words of Jesus: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
It’s pretty clear. Most voters want to live in a state that works and one that is worth living in.
Those who want to live in a failed state can find plenty of options around the world. We don’t need to create another one here.