Advocates: Proposed budget for W.Va. doesn’t go far enough

(Governor Justice)
Published: Jan. 13, 2023 at 10:31 AM EST
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice’s budget proposal doesn’t go far enough to support the most vulnerable and marginalized residents in one of the nation’s poorest states, advocates said Thursday.

Prevent Child Abuse West Virginia Director Jim McKay said it was poignant to him that the Republican governor called his plan to cut the state’s personal income tax by 50 percent over three years a “West Virginia tsunami” during his State of the State address Wednesday.

“The reality is tsunamis are not great things, right?” McKay said, speaking at a press briefing at the state Capitol. “Tsunamis leave a path of destruction.”

While McKay commended the governor’s commitment to funding teaching assistants in early-grade classrooms, he said he worries about the “path of destruction” that will be caused by state leaders punting on issues like affordable childcare and paid family and medical leave. As of last year, nearly four out of five workers lacked access to paid leave in West Virginia.

Meanwhile, programs like early childhood home visitation and Family Resource Networks “have not had an increase in their line items for over a decade,” McKay said.

“We now have a tsunami warning,” he said. “It’s time for lawmakers to take action to ensure that a tax cut tsunami doesn’t put more families under water.”

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, praised Justice’s inclusion of a 5% pay raise for state employees and $100 million for the Public Employees Insurance Agency. PEIA is the health insurance provider for government employees and their families.

But more help is needed, Lee said. Rising healthcare costs and concerns about the long-term solvency of the Public Employees Insurance Agency were major drivers of statewide school employees strikes in 2018. Instead of investing in a long-term strategic plan in the years since, lawmakers have instead relied on one-time surpluses and other maneuvers to keep the program solvent, he said.

“It’s time for us to take this serious,” Lee said. “It’s time for us to look at PEIA and what we can do for a long-term solution, not year by year.”

Lee said “we are at a crisis crossroads here in West Virginia,” with 1,500 classrooms throughout the state lacking a certified teacher. In 2018, when teachers went on strike, there were 728 uncertified teachers in the state.

“We’re doing harm to kids,” he said.

West Virginia NAACP President Darryl Clausell said in a state like West Virginia that is 93% white, the other 7% of the population “has a tendency to get lost,” even though residents of color are disproportionately impacted when it comes to issues like incarceration and student discipline.

West Virginia’s lawmakers haven’t passed legislation to meaningfully address inequities between white and Black students concerning school discipline, with Black students more likely to be punished. In the past, lawmakers tasked the West Virginia Department of Education with collecting data on the disparities, but have not come up with a comprehensive plan to fix the problem.

“We need to unite as a people and focus on our real problems,” Clausell said. “We have to cut through the Band-Aids that they use to cover the problem, but it never heals the problem.”

Additionally, advocates have voiced concern about proposals to funnel state money into anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers. West Virginia lawmakers passed a near-total ban on abortions last year after the U.S. Supreme Court ended constitutional protection of the procedure.

During his State of the State address, Justice announced that his proposed budget includes $1 million for crisis pregnancy centers, which are typically religiously affiliated and counsel clients against having an abortion as part of their free but limited services. They are generally are not licensed as medical facilities.

On Thursday, lawmakers in the House Health and Human Resources Committee greenlit a bill that would allow crisis pregnancy centers to receive funding through a new program called the “West Virginia Mothers and Babies Pregnancy Support Program.”

It’s unclear how much money the centers would be eligible to receive under the program. The bill will next be reviewed by the House Finance Committee.

The same bill also increases tax credits families can receive for adopting children from $4,000 to $5,000, and allows adopted kids to be eligible for state early intervention programs regardless of income. Supporters say the legislation is designed to provide more support to children and families who can no longer obtain abortions.

Alisa Clements, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic, said she doesn’t believe giving anti-abortion centers state funding will do anything to improve residents’ health outcomes.

“Instead, we will be transferring money away from reproductive health care for our citizens into anti-abortion activism nationally,” she said.

An Associated Press tally based on state budget figures last year revealed that nearly $89 million had been allocated to such centers across about a dozen states. A decade ago, the annual funding for the programs hovered around $17 million in about eight states.

Kelly Allen, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said a state’s budget reflects its values, and Justice’s budget “values tax cuts for the wealthy over funding programs that serve us all.”

“They don’t go far enough for a governor who tells us daily how much money the state has and how well we’re doing,” she said. “If we’re doing so well as a state, why are children homeless and hungry?”

Justice’s office didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the advocates’ concerns. His budget proposal does include $10 million for an emergency fund for food banks.