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Editorial: Public has right to know how its money is spent; Let legislators know you oppose SB 474

The Journal of Martinsburg:

In October, voters in West Virginia approved a road bond referendum allowing the state to sell up to $1.6 billion in state bonds to improve state roads.

West Virginia’s Roads to Prosperity — a $3 billion roads infrastructure spending plan — has been touted as not just fixing the state’s roads, but helping to put people in the state to work.

“Can you imagine the multiplier effect of the jobs that will be created…?”Gov. Jim Justice said in a December Associated Press article.

We hope it’s a lot. It was, in fact, a large reason why many voters authorized the state to spend their hard-earned money.

But now, the Legislature is trying to restrict the public’s access to see how some of that money is being spent.

Senate Bill 474 — which eliminates public access to payroll information on state construction jobs and the Roads to Prosperity road bond work — made its way to the Senate floor Tuesday for a first reading.

As journalists, we must take a stand against restricted access to public records. But, we think the public should be dismayed as well. If this bill becomes law, journalists won’t be the only group denied access to those records — so will the public.

In October, lawmakers voted to strengthen penalties of a law requiring 75 percent of the work force on state-contracted construction jobs be from the local labor market. Who is going to ensure this is happening if no one has access to that information?

This is an important issue. The road bond drastically increased the state’s debt. The state will sell a total of $1.6 billion in state bonds over the next four years. This is on top of an increased wholesale gas tax by 3.5 cents a gallon, and an increased vehicle sales tax from 5 to 6 percent.

The motor vehicle registration fee was also raised from $30 to $50.

Voters authorized this project believing they’d have access to the information detailing how the money was being spent.

The state has listed hundreds of planned infrastructure projects. Transparency in government is more important now than ever to ensure the majority of the public’s money is spent on West Virginia workers.

Legislators argue that SB474 would protect personal privacy by restricting payroll information from public scrutiny. But SB474 restricts access to payroll reports for public money paid on state construction jobs.

If this is deemed private, what other publicly funded positions — or institutions, for that matter — are next?

Perhaps we should remind our legislators who that money belongs to.

If you disagree with SB474, let your legislators know.

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