Flying Blind On Taxes, Budget

Changing a state’s entire tax structure is a laborious, time-consuming process full of pitfalls. Try to do it at the same time you are attempting to enact a new budget and the frustrations have to be incredible.

They certainly have been in West Virginia. Whether one agrees with the stances of Gov. Jim Justice and various legislators, who have myriad viewpoints on taxes and the budget, one has to give them credit for trying.

And one might think that a state government with a $4.187 billion General Fund Budget this year would have all the tools the governor and lawmakers need to get the job done.

Apparently not. For weeks, one of the questions our reporters have been asking about various proposals to change the tax structure is how much money they would raise. Getting answers has been very difficult, often impossible.

As we learned from legislators this week, that is not because any of them are trying to withhold the information. They don’t know, either.

Until a bill or bills intended to alter the tax structure is actually introduced, legislators are unable to find out how much money the plan would raise. That comes in the form of a “fiscal note” prepared by state analysts.

“It’s too much work to generate a fiscal note on something that is uncertain,” state Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, explained.

In other words, during much of the process of looking at various tax structures, legislators are operating in the dark.

No wonder it takes so long. No wonder the process is so frustrating. And no wonder that once lawmakers have a plan in the form of a bill, they are upset when it is rejected and they must start all over.

This is crazy. Surely some means exists to provide legislators with revenue estimates for various mixtures of taxes and tax rates earlier in the process of reform. Obviously, that would make the work easier and more precise for legislators — and quite likely, would benefit taxpayers.

It is too late to put such a process in place for the current round of budget negotiations. Before another year goes by, however, Justice, legislators — and the public — should demand it.

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