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Editorial: The spending of tax dollars is the public’s business

Logan Banner editorial

It’s ironic — and disheartening to open-government advocates — that while the West Virginia auditor’s office is touting the importance of public access to the state’s spending records, another branch of government is trying to place a shroud of secrecy on some of that information.

That other government branch is a group of state lawmakers who on Wednesday voted to advance Senate Bill 474. The legislation aims to amend the West Virginia Jobs Act so that records of wages paid to employees of contractors working on public improvement projects would become confidential and shielded from public view. That’s contrary to current provisions of the law.

During a West Virginia Senate Workforce Committee meeting, the panel abruptly moved to vote on the measure, after only one person attending the session was allowed to speak about the bill. That was Don Smith, executive director of the West Virginia Press Association, who contended that keeping the records confidential would hamper the ability of the public and media to see how taxpayers’ money is spent and spot any improprieties that may occur. That also would include the people that one of the senators said he was trying to protect with the bill – people seeking jobs with contractors who land contracts with the state.

Just this week, state Auditor J.B. McCuskey is unveiling new features on his office’s website that is intended to give the public in West Virginia a better way to scrutinize state government’s financial dealings, both on the revenue and expenditure sides. The goal is to give them a virtual look at the state’s checkbook so that people can be informed about how “the people’s money is spent.” The new website features come at a good time, since the state is just now embarking on spending about $2.8 billion over the next few years on road and bridge projects.

Part of that road money comes from a $1.6 billion bond issue that voters approved last year, with the pledge that the goal was to boost the economy in part by providing jobs for West Virginians. Indeed, the Jobs Act that House Bill 474 would amend spells out that a high percentage of jobs must be filled by West Virginians. However, if the information about wages and where the contractors’ employees live is withheld, the voters won’t be able to determine whether the state is living up to that pledge.

Essentially the same bill approved by the West Virginia Senate Workforce Committee on Wednesday was passed by the Senate last year, but it failed to gain approval in the House. We’ll repeat what we said last fall when there was talk during interim legislative meetings to revive the bill. The wage information is important to uncovering fraud and waste in public projects, and shielding it from the public is particularly important at a time when the state plans to spend a massive amount of money.

This legislation is not in the public’s best interest.

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