The leadership of the West Virginia Legislature is beating its breasts about passing a budget without extending the Regular Session. This was the second year in a row the budget was passed prematurely. The breast-beating is understandable, but stupid.
It’s understandable because two years ago, the Legislature took two extra months after the end of the Regular Session before adopting that year’s budget. It’s stupid because passing a budget prematurely is unwise.
The state constitution requires that a budget (that is balanced) be passed prior to the beginning of the fiscal year for which it is to be law. Our state’s fiscal year begins on July 1 of each calendar year.
The constitution further provides that the annual 60-calendar-day Regular Session of the Legislature may be extended for however long it takes to complete the budget. That is the only constitutionally permissible reason for extending the Regular Session.
The framers of the state constitution knew what they were doing. They understood that budgetary decisions should reflect policy decisions, not drive them.
Every year, the Legislature makes important policy decisions late in the Regular Session, many on the 60th day. If the budget has already been passed, some policy choices will have been arbitrarily eliminated. Is this by accident, or intentional? Either way, the cart’s before the horse.
Worth the Wait
For example, the House Education Committee on the 59th day of this year’s session amended a bill that provided tuition-free community college to those students who meet some stringent qualifications. The amendment expanded the provision to include the first two years of students going to four-year colleges. The leadership successfully opposed the amendment, arguing the budget had already been passed and the additional money required for the expansion had not been provided.
By contrast, the Legislature this year reduced severance taxes on steam coal by $60 million. The leadership told the House that the reduction had already been built into the budget.
Passing the budget bill early gives the legislative leadership even more power to influence rank-and-file legislators than it would otherwise have. It has plenty without the extra help!
Certainly, I don’t think the Legislature should take several extra weeks to craft a budget. Possibly the “hurry-up” budgeting of the past two years was partly due to embarrassment over the incompetence of two years ago. But one act of stupidity does not require an opposite act of stupidity.
I was a member of the Budget Conference Committee for 12 years, 1995-2006. Each year, we waited until after the 60th day of Regular Session to finalize the budget. Each year, that work took about an extra week.
The House and Senate would each pass its version of the budget on the 60th day of the session. The Budget Conference Committee would then meet to both compromise the differences between the two versions, and to factor in all the bills that had been passed that year, even those passed on the 60th day. The full House and Senate then voted on the document. This is precisely what the framers of our state constitution envisioned.
Some argue that premature budgeting saves the taxpayers $35,000 per day by being hasty. That’s how much it’s reputed to cost to pay legislators and temporary staff during the extension. I think $35,000 is an exaggeration, because not every legislator stays in Charleston during an extension.
Each year I was on the Budget Conference Committee, we saved the state several million dollars during the extension, finding efficiencies we would not have otherwise found. Saving even $1 million is worth an expense of less than $250,000.
— Mr. Doyle represents Jefferson County in the WV House of Delegates—District 67.