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MAP TO PROSPERITY: State spending often takes political turns

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  • Map to Prosperity

    Map to Prosperity

    Thursday, January 2 2014 11:59 AM EST2014-01-02 16:59:08 GMT
    "Map to Prosperity" is a long-term project of The State Journal that will deeply examine government and business in West Virginia — both the perceptions and the reality.
    "Map to Prosperity" is a long-term project of The State Journal that will deeply examine government and business in West Virginia — both the perceptions and the reality.

Political science often is more of an art than a science. 

For proof, look closely at how West Virginia's elected leaders sometimes allocate the state's scarce resources. One recurring phenomenon is the package deal: A leader or group with power (but not enough power to get what they want for their pet project) puts together a package that contains many additional projects. There is something for everyone, so the package draws more support than the pet project ever would have if it had been left to stand on its own.

Examples:

 

  • Those interested in acquiring $25 million in state funding to help build what is now the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences in Charleston helped construct a $100 million bond issue in 1996. The bond issue yielded $22.2 million for the Clay Center plus money for state parks, improvements at the state Capitol Complex and higher education projects. Lottery proceeds are paying the principal and interest on the bonds.
  • Leaders who wanted state money to help create a Victorian outlet center in Wheeling put together a $224.8 million bond issue in 2004 that funded 48 projects. Again, lottery money is paying for all of it. The outlet mall idea was eventually dropped but the Wheeling area received $35 million for what is now known as The Highlands, which contains a Cabela's distribution center and retail store an many other retailers.

 

In both examples, it could be argued that some of the money was spent on worthy projects. Perhaps the bigger question is: Are projects prioritized and funded in the best ways possible?

Another recurring phenomenon: Failing to act on a pending crisis until a key stakeholder deems it is truly at risk. 

Two examples:

 

  • Lawmakers transferred workers' compensation insurance from a state agency to the private sector in 2006 after the agency piled up a $3.3 billion unfunded liability and it became obvious the state's system was burning through cash at an unsustainable rate.

 

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said in his 2014 State of the State address the unfunded liability is expected to be less than $500 million by the end of the year. Also since privatization, workers' comp loss cost rates — a key ingredient in determining workers' comp insurance premiums — have dropped by a cumulative total of 69.7 percent.

 

  • After hospitals around the state couldn't recruit new physicians because of the high cost of medical malpractice insurance in 2001 and Charleston Area Medical Center lost its designation as a Level 1 trauma center, lawmakers passed insurance reforms and the crisis abruptly ended.

 

In both examples, lawmakers showed a willingness to tweak the status quo, but a reluctance to make those sweeping changes until the status quo reached crisis level.

Yet another state government phenomenon could be construed as quid pro quo — the Latin phrase that means "something for something." 

Consider:

 

  • The projects picked for funding by the state Economic Development Grant Committee in 2004 included $10 million for a lodge at Chief Logan State Park. The park is in the district represented at the time by then-Senate President Tomblin.
  • In 2012 Tomblin signed a bill allowing the state to sell more than $52 million in bonds for park projects. One of the projects: a lodge at Beech Fork State Park, which is in the district that was represented at the time by then-House Speaker Rick Thompson.
  • Back in 2000 as the Legislature debated the structure of community and technical colleges in the state, the creation of Eastern Community and Technical College raised many eyebrows. At the time, then-House Finance Committee Chairman Harold Michael, D-Hardy, secured $2 million for the school to be built near Moorefield, a 12-mile drive from the Petersburg branch of Shepherd University. That situation caused some to say Eastern CTC was unnecessary and eventually leading to lawsuits over the Budget Digest, the since-abandoned budget process lawmakers once used to dole out money to favored lawmakers' local projects.