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Statehouse beat: The sky isn't falling

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Some media outlets last week were all in a dither about November state revenue collections coming up $14.9 million short for the month, and that the year-to-date revenue shortfall had jumped some 25 percent, from $42.5 million to $57.4 million, in a single month.

There was much ado and speculation about budget freezes, state employee layoffs or furloughs, etc., as a result of the seemingly dire downturn in state finances.

However, the November shortfall is essentially an accounting fluke.

Of the 14 different categories of taxes the state collects, most come due on the 15th or the 20th of the month. Only two taxes still come due on the last day of the month: severance taxes, mainly from coal and natural gas production; and business and occupation taxes, primarily from power plants operating in the state.

In November, not only did the last day of the month fall on a Saturday, but state offices were also closed that Thursday and Friday for the Thanksgiving holiday.

That meant, on paper, severance taxes came in $14.3 million short for November, and B&O taxes were down $2.7 million.

(A household analogy would be if you forgot to deposit your weekly paycheck over the Thanksgiving holidays, and then sat down to balance your checkbook at the first of the month, your first impression would be that it's going to be slim pickings for Christmas ... until you remembered to cash your paycheck.)

Indeed, on Monday and Tuesday, nearly $28 million of severance taxes poured into state Tax Division offices.

Had those taxes been booked to November, the media coverage would have been very different, about how the state had met monthly revenue projections for the first time in the 2013-14 budget year, and how the year-to-date revenue shortfall remained basically unchanged from October.

Indeed, personal income tax collections -- which are a pretty accurate gauge of the economy -- came closer to meeting monthly projections in November, coming in $1.8 million below estimates, after running $7.8 million short in October.

Deputy Revenue Secretary Mark Muchow said that's the result of the state beginning to see an uptick in payroll and employment numbers.

While a $42 million revenue shortfall is nothing to sneeze at, and may well require spending adjustments if the economy doesn't continue to improve over the next few months, it's important to keep in mind it's only about 1 percent of the total state general revenue budget.

And for the Chicken Littles of the media, a remedial accounting course might be in order.

***

Nonetheless, the decision of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and first lady Joanne Jaeger Tomblin to scale back the governor's Christmas parties (to just two, and at the Culture Center, not the Governor's Mansion) is sound, even if the actual savings are probably comparatively minimal: About $30,000 from not having to rent and heat a party tent at the mansion, plus savings on wear and tear to the mansion.

(Presumably, the parties Friday and Saturday evening went well, although that's one of the perils of writing columns Friday mornings and afternoons that are published two to three days later.

I got burned a couple of years back writing about a redistricting suit I had been assured would be filed late that Friday afternoon, and wrote it in the past tense, as opposed to my favorite tense, future perfect, "was to have been filed ..." As frequently occurs in litigation, complications ensued, and the suit, with a few changes, didn't actually get filed until the following Thursday.)

***

When it comes to budget-cutting, one could raise a question about whether the state needs to have two airplanes, particularly when one -- the $2.18 million 2009 Cessna Caravan -- gets little use.

Excluding maintenance flights, from mid-April through November, the Caravan has been booked for just 11 round-trip flights from Charleston, and only once by the governor's office (to fly the first lady to Morgantown and back June 17.) The Department of Transportation has been the biggest user, with flights July 31 to Elkins, Aug. 29 to Cumberland, Md., Sept. 17 to Steubenville, Ohio, and Oct. 2 to Martinsburg.

During the same period, the state's King Air has had 57 flights -- in itself, not exactly a jam-packed flight log.

In fact, there were only three days since mid-April when both planes were in use -- Sept. 12, Oct. 2, and Oct. 4 -- and without knowing the flight times, it's possible the King Air could have accommodated both trips on those days.

(Some might argue the Caravan's usefulness as a state plane waned after we no longer had a governor licensed to fly it.)

***

Finally, I found West Virginia Public Broadcasting's informal viewer/listener poll on its most popular programs fascinating, but was somewhat surprised that "Antiques Roadshow" wasn't among viewer favorites.

On the bright side, Public Broadcasting Executive Director Scott Finn said that, after 18 seasons, "Antiques Roadshow" producers are scouting locations they haven't previously visited (and revisited).

He said they're very interested in filming an episode in Charleston, likely next August or September, but nothing's in writing yet.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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