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Opinion: Statehouse Beat – Budget search misses real chances to save money

By Phil Kabler

The Charleston Gazette-Mail

During the session, Gov. Jim Justice talked often about how the state cannot continue to “kick the can down the road,” his metaphor for failing to address systemic problems with state finances.

Phil Kabler

The Legislature, in passing a hastily thrown together budget bill (House Bill 2018), kicked the can down the road, over the river, through the woods and off a ravine. In his veto ceremony, Justice probably cannot be blamed too harshly for theatrically comparing it to something one finds in cow pastures.

As pontificated here before, the Legislature has done a woefully ineffective job in following through on its promise to find inefficiencies and waste in state government.

I won’t waste any more time discussing the interim committee that was empaneled with the directive to find $300 million in spending cuts that instead spent what limited time was available to it under the truncated interim schedule on such minutia as how many bulls the Department of Agriculture should own.

Once again, despite a half-billion-dollar budget hole, the Legislature found it difficult to target programs for cuts.

Eliminating a matching fund that provides $9 million a year for out-of-state casino operators to make improvements to their West Virginia operations — thus freeing up money to invest in their casinos in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Maryland that are putting the squeeze on our casino industry — seemed to be a no-brainer.

The bill passed the House, but died in Senate Finance Committee.

Likewise, spending $5 million a year for the state Courtesy Patrol probably made more sense in the 1960s and early 1970s, when automobiles weren’t particularly reliable, and there was no way to call for help if one broke down.

Add to that the six-figure salaries that the executives of the nonprofit group that operates the patrol pay themselves from state funds, and legislation to eliminate that funding would again seem highly sensible.

Again, it passed the House, but died in Senate Finance.

Even the Fairs and Festivals line-item, the last remaining vestige of the old legislative Budget Digest from the halcyon days when legislative leaders would direct agencies on how to spend budget surpluses, appeared to abide, even in the face of a massive budget deficit.

The vetoed budget would have provided about $1.34 million for dozens of fairs and festivals around the state, about a 20 percent cut.

Meanwhile, virtually nothing was done to address systemic issues with state spending: Are we trying to operate more counties, school systems, state colleges, etc., than we can afford?

Sen. Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, and six other senators, including Ed Gaunch and Tom Takubo, both R-Kanawha, and Glenn Jeffries, D-Putnam, introduced a bill (Senate Bill 534) that would provide financial and administrative incentives to encourage cities and counties to consolidate into metro governments.

(Another former Kanawha senator, Brooks McCabe, long advocated metro government as a way to take advantage of economies of scale and assist cities and counties that lack the population and tax base to deliver basic functions.)

Palumbo’s bill passed the Senate 28-6 on crossover day, but sat in House Government Organization Committee for the final 10 days of the session.

Meanwhile, Delegate Ron Walters, R-Kanawha, introduced an 800-page bill to consolidate the 55 county boards of education into 10 regional school districts (HB 3008), presumably reducing public education administrative costs considerably.

It sat in House Education Committee for 3½ weeks without getting a glimmer of consideration.

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While you may disagree with Sen. Craig Blair’s politics, you can’t say he’s not passionate about what he believes.

At about 10:30 on the last night of the session, while the House was taking a recess, I went upstairs to the House floor to try to figure out if House leadership was in on the “on the cusp” budget compromise that Justice had just announced.

Approaching the doorway across from speaker’s office, I saw Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, exiting the chambers, and as I was attempting to ask him a question, Blair came through the doorway, turning and dropping an “f-bomb” on whomever he was addressing in the chambers.

I later learned that Carmichael and Blair, R-Berkeley, had gone to the chambers intending to meet with Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, to see about holding a joint House-Senate Republican caucus to go over the proposed budget compromise, and that Armstead had flatly refused to meet with them, let alone agree to a caucus.

Not sure why Armstead got into such a snit about being left out of the negotiations.

Don’t forget that a couple of weeks earlier, Justice’s people were negotiating a budget deal with House leaders, after the House Finance Committee introduced a budget plan featuring a $137 million revenue infusion from eliminating several sales tax exemptions.

I don’t recall anyone in Senate leadership getting agitated because they were being left out of those talks.

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I was hoping Justice would sign the daily Cardinal passenger rail service compact bill (HB 2856) into law on my birthday, but alas, he signed it a day before.

Nonetheless, in an otherwise gloomy session for job creation and economic development, it provides a little glimmer of hope for modest growth in tourism and the economy.

While the focus of the bill has been on increasing numbers of passengers who would detrain in West Virginia, a daily Cardinal would also mean an increase in the number of passengers from points west connecting in Chicago and taking the train to points in the east (and vice versa).

While those passengers would have no intention of stopping in West Virginia (and many may have never been to the state), they would be exposed to a free, three-hour West Virginia tourism travelogue taking place outside their windows. (And with the Legislature’s continued reluctance to fund state tourism advertising to the level Justice has said is necessary to be effective, that might have to suffice.)

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Finally, allow me to add my voice to the chorus of congratulations to Eric Eyre for his Pulitzer Prize win.

It occurred to me that, over the years, I’ve shared the Gazette (now Gazette-Mail) cubbyhole in the Capitol press room with some very able reporters: Fanny Seiler, Tom Searls, Scott Finn, Alison Knezevich and, in recent years, Eric. Keep hoping that some of their talent rubs off at some point

Reach Phil Kabler at [email protected], 304-348-1220, or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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