Augusta Free Press

Ken Plum: Balancing our budget based on needs

During the primary election season when both parties in Virginia were making their selection of a candidate for governor, one candidate who went on to get his party’s nomination proposed the clincher of a policy proposal to secure his success in the election: a billion-dollar tax cut!

For those who have been around the state for some time it may sound familiar; the successful car tax cutting proposal that elected a previous governor is still costing the state about a billion dollars each year. That cut was particularly ironic in that it had the state cutting a local tax by reimbursing the localities for taxpayers. It was great for Northern Virginians as less wealthy downstate taxpayers reimburse the wealthiest jurisdictions in a reverse “Robin Hood” plan.

Before voters jump at a promise of reduced taxes, I hope there will be a serious consideration of the consequences. Virginia prides itself on being a “balanced budget” state; its revenues cover its operational expenses. Borrowing is permitted under the State Constitution for capital projects when approved by voters unless the project raises enough revenue to pay for itself. All that is good with a major exception. At no time does the state quantify its needs in order to determine what the cost of government would be if the state met its responsibility in providing funding. Two examples are offered below to make my point.

The first example is the state’s refusal to fund education at the level it has in the past and that is required by the Constitution. A report by the Commonwealth Institute, “State Cuts Mean Fewer Staff and Resources for Virginia Students,” in April, 2017, makes the point. “Statewide, state support has fallen 11 percent per student since 2009 in real dollars. This has impacted the ability of schools to maintain staffing and facilities. Across the state, school divisions have about 2,800 fewer staff than they had in 2009, despite growing enrollment. If they had kept pace with enrollment growth, Virginia’s schools would have 10,400 more staff instructing students and making sure the schools run smoothly.”

The other example is in health care. The Remote Area Medical (RAM) clinic in Wise County is well known having been featured on an edition of 60 Minutes. There thousands of Virginians receive their health care for the year in a weekend clinic held on the local fair grounds. The federal Affordable Care Act did not help as the legislature would not take federal monies to expand Medicaid that would have helped these people in need. The state turned its back on nearly five billion dollars paid into the federal system by Virginia taxpayers because it did not want to have anything to do with what it termed Obamacare. What has happened in the meantime? A second RAM weekend clinic has been opened in Lee County nearby to Wise in Southwest Virginia, and a new clinic has been started in Emporia in Greensville County in Southside Virginia.

We definitely need to balance our budget, but we need to balance it against our needs. How could we seriously propose to cut our income when there continue to be such extensive unmet needs in the Commonwealth?

Ken Plum is a member of the Virginia House of Delegates.