W.Va. governor proposes flat budget, some seek more investment in state

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A rural road in West Virginia.
A rural road in West Virginia. (Rachel Wagoner photo)

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice recently announced a proposed state budget for fiscal year 2023.

The overall budget is essentially flat, staying consistent in investments in food, agriculture, natural resources and infrastructure, with just a 1.4% increase from last year’s budget to just over $4.6 billion. Most of that increase comes from a bump in public employee salaries across state agencies.

The proposal lines up with Justice’s history of proposing mostly flat budgets for the last several years. Some argue, however, a flat budget means low expectations and a lack of investment in the state. The state’s ag and conservation agencies have already brought up needs for more investment in committee hearings.

“A flat budget year after year means we aren’t even keeping pace with inflation, let alone addressing new needs,” said Kelly Allen, director of the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, during a Jan. 21 analysis of the proposed budget. “And that’s shortsighted.”

Proposal

Justice delivered a written “state of the state” address to the legislature, along with the proposed budget, Jan. 12, since he tested positive for COVID-19 the day before. He plans to follow that up with a Jan. 27 in-person address. In the written message, Justice touted declines in unemployment and general revenue surpluses for the 2021 and likely the 2022 fiscal years.

“We continue to achieve surplus after surplus,” he wrote.

Sean O’Leary, senior policy analyst for the center, said there’s a disparity in how Justice is presenting the numbers, and what’s actually going on. If a state estimates low when figuring out how much revenue to expect, and then collects more than estimated, that is a surplus. And the state has been estimating low, partly due to uncertainties about the pandemic.

“We’re not in this situation where the state is doing incredibly well and the economy is booming and we’re bringing in all this money. We’re really in a situation where we’re settling back down to where we were before the pandemic began,” O’Leary said. “When you have that low expectation, you can create a surplus.”

Estimating low also means state agencies and the legislature can’t request those funds, since they have to stay within the governor’s estimate, he added.

In the first senate finance committee hearing on the budget bill Jan. 13, Michael Cook, director of the state budget office, said agencies were told to submit their base budgets at the same level as the 2022 fiscal year and request budget increases separately if they had additional needs.

Agriculture

In keeping with the budget as a whole, Justice’s proposed department of agriculture budget is similar to its fiscal year 2022 budget. The department of agriculture is proposed to receive just under $13 million, in line with its requests for fiscal year 2023.

Justice requested $1 million for the state’s largest food banks, noting in the state of the state message that food insecurity has been a particularly big issue during the pandemic. This mirrors the $1 million dedicated to food banks in the previous budget.

In a Jan. 20 hearing, commissioner of agriculture Kent Leonhardt detailed the department’s additional fiscal year 2023 requests to the finance committee. The department is seeking $5 million to rebuild a laboratory, $300,000 for meat inspection, $1 million for the WV Grown program, $250,000 to continue implementing the Fresh Food Act, $250,000 for salary enhancements to help fill some vacancies and $200,000 for SNAP stretch.

The department is also hoping to increase its spending authority for the spay neuter assistance program fund, agriculture development fund and the agriculture investment fund.

“As supply chain issues continue to grow, and we deal with this ongoing pandemic, local agriculture will continue to be vital to the health of our citizens. To me, the time is now to really invest in agriculture,” Leonhardt said.

Conservation

Justice proposed $24.2 million for the division of natural resources, and about $5.6 million for forestry. He also proposed about $6.7 million for the department of environmental protection.

The governor recommended about $11.2 million for the West Virginia Conservation Agency. Brian Farkas, executive director for the agency, told the finance committee Jan. 20 the agency is seeking an additional $2.5 million. Part of that funding would go to a stream and agriculture mitigation program. That program would help deal with flooding issues.

“We have one of the highest densities of stream to land ratio, and when it rains, unfortunately, too often, we have flooding,” Farkas said.

Some of those funds would also go to an agricultural enhancement program that assists with cover crops, nutrient management, invasive species and more. And, finally, some of that $2.5 million would be used to match federal dollars for the Chesapeake Bay/319 Program and for the non-point source program, which focus on reducing nutrient pollution that affects the Chesapeake Bay.

Farkas also noted West Virginia needs to address issues with some of its dams. The state has 170 high hazard dams, and 107 will reach their evaluated life in 2023, which means costs and decisions for managing them shift to entirely state and local government, without the federal government’s involvement.

There are also 32 dams that don’t meet the state’s own safety requirements. Taking care of the top 25 dams would cost at least $110 million. It will take time to upgrade those dams, even if the agency receives all the funding it needs to do that, Farkas said.

“We do a really good job of kicking the can down the road, but unfortunately, one of these days, it’s going to hit the curb and bounce back on us,” Farkas said.

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Reporter Sarah Donaldson is a former 4-Her and a Mount Union graduate from Columbiana County, Ohio. She enjoys playing and writing music, cooking, and storytelling in many forms. She can be reached at 800-837-3419 or sarah@farmanddairy.com.

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