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Analysis: Evaluate Tax Breaks to Help Shut State Budget Gap


Friday, August 16, 2013   

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – West Virginia faces another budget gap next year, but experts say much of it could be made up by figuring out which tax breaks are not living up to their promises.

The state expects a $300 million shortfall in 2014, and the governor has told agencies to expect another round of steep spending cuts.

Sean O'Leary, a policy analyst with the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, says the state should first look at tax breaks that reduce revenue.

He asserts the state does a very poor job of tracking how much the various tax breaks cost, let alone which ones are worthwhile.

"I think we could close a significant part of that budget gap if we actually took the time to come up with a number of these tax expenditures and ask the question, are they working?" he says.

The state estimates a tax credit on alternative-fuel vehicles, including flex-fuel cars and trucks, has cost a $100 million. That was much more than expected.

O'Leary says there are many other tax breaks that deserve more attention.

Last year, O'Leary was one of the authors of a West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy report on the dozens of tax breaks intended to speed economic growth. He says the center found the state didn't even know how much tax breaks cost each year, let alone how many jobs they spark.

"If it's to create jobs, are we creating jobs?” he asks. “If it's to encourage coal production, is it encouraging coal production?

“We don't ask these questions and we don't even know the true cost of all these tax expenditures."

Tax-break supporters say they do help the state promote economic development.

But officials including the secretary of commerce and the chair of the Senate Finance Committee have in the past publicly said the current level of oversight is lacking.

O'Leary cites a severance tax break that mine companies get for taking coal out of thin seams.

"Is that an activity we want to encourage?” he questions. “Is that helping the coal industry?

“Is it encouraging more production or is that something that's occurring naturally? We don't know, but we do know that it's costing $75 million a year, and growing each year."

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