Seize Second Chance on Bill

Action that should have been a certainty on the very first day of the West Virginia Legislature’s regular session this year still is in doubt this week. Lawmakers should not leave Charleston without taking care of the unfinished business.

When they went into session Jan. 8, legislators knew they faced difficult decisions to balance the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. What should have been one of the easier budget choices became a battle.

Revenue has been lagging behind expectations throughout the current year. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin expects the state will collect even less during the year beginning July 1.

Yet lawmakers have approved some new spending initiatives, including pay raises for educators and other public employees.

After the 60-day regular session ended Saturday, lawmakers began working on the budget. By Thursday, it appeared spending would exceed revenue by about $144 million.

Plans are to close that gap by taking the money from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, which had been intended for use only in one-time emergencies – not to balance budgets facing ongoing structural problems such as is the case now.

Built up over the course of many years, the Rainy Day Fund contains about $920 million. Obviously, drawdowns in the range of $144 million a year will empty the account quickly.

Tomblin had recommended action to ease the impact. He wanted lawmakers to approve changes to how state Lottery Commission funds are distributed. His plan would have provided about $40 million.

It included taking $20 million the Lottery Commission ordinarily would have transferred to an infrastructure improvement account, cutting funds available to privately owned casinos for equipment upgrades – and reducing slightly the subsidies paid to the horse- and dog-racing industries.

Lobbyists for those industries managed to block the plan for weeks. Then, however, the House of Delegates approved it. And on Saturday night, the state Senate followed suit – but too late in the evening for the House to finalize the measure.

If it is to be implemented, the plan will have to be approved in a special session of the Legislature during the next few days.

Again, the changes in Lottery Commission funds should have been made two months ago. Legislators should be happy they have a second chance to do the right thing.