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Editorial: Spending cuts can allow for programs

From The Journal of Martinsburg: West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee is right about the danger of across-the-board spending cuts in state government — to a point.

Republican legislators have vowed to balance the state budget through limits on spending. Gee and many others in higher education worry that could damage their institutions.

With other state college and university leaders, Gee was in Charleston to talk with lawmakers last week. He warned across-the-board limits on spending could result in “mediocrity” at institutions of higher learning.

Merely directing that colleges and universities in general must limit spending by some percentage determined by legislators could require some institutions, such as WVU, to cut programs that actually enhance the economy and West Virginia’s tax base.

What has been needed for a long time is an objective look at higher education. That would allow legislators — and the public — to prioritize spending. Perhaps some programs at some colleges and universities should be eliminated altogether. Others may merit more, not less, taxpayer support.

On that score, Gee is absolutely correct. But in regard to state government as a whole, not just higher education, he is wrong.

There is room for substantial spending discipline throughout state government. Gov. Jim Justice’s administration has made that clear in one way.

One of his first acts as governor was to order that the number of state vehicles assigned to the governor’s office be reduced. Some other agencies have followed his lead. At last report, they had found ways to cut the state’s fleet by 207 vehicles.

But some agencies, including the gigantic Department of Health and Human Resources, have not announced cuts. The DHHR gets $1.1 billion from the state’s $4 billion general fund. It gets nearly $400 million in other funds, plus more than $3.3 billion in federal money each year.

Yet the DHHR has not yet found a way to reduce its vehicle fleet.

There are many other opportunities for savings — if state agencies are told they have to find and implement them.

Across-the-board spending discipline enforced by the Legislature may be the only way to convince the bureaucrats to do that.

The peril in that is that the agencies may take the easy way out, as they have done in the past by scrapping entire programs rather than finding savings throughout their bureaucracies. Surely legislators — quite likely with the eager assistance of the governor — can find ways to guard against that.

Gee is correct in warning of the damage that could be done by across-the-board spending limits. But it can be done without loss of valuable programs. The governor himself, along with agencies that have cut vehicles from their fleets, have proven that.

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