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Statehouse Beat, April 15, 2012: Hometown projects still popular

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- It used to be that spring was the time when a young reporter's fancy turned to pursuing the legislative Budget Digest.

For more than 40 years, the digest was released in late spring, a document that directed state agencies to spend a portion of their budget appropriations for fairs, festivals, parks, playgrounds and other voter-friendly community projects in the legislators' hometowns and districts.

Alas, in 2006, the Legislature voted to kill off the digest, the victim of three lawsuits in 15 years challenging the legality of the post-Budget Bill spending directives, and also a victim of its own success.

After a Gazette series in 1991 publicizing and detailing the digest process, lawmakers were inundated each year with tens of millions of dollars of funding requests from constituents, far exceeding the $20 million to $35 million a year of funds that could be skimmed off the top of state agency budgets to fund digest items.

However, funding for hometown projects and events didn't go away, it just went underground a bit.

(For all the complaints about the Budget Digest, it was a fairly transparent process. The digest was a public document, and all legislators' funding requests were on file for public review.)

These days, instead of the Budget Digest, legislators make funding requests through the Governor's Community Participation Program. That adds an extra step to the process, since final approval of the funding comes from the governor's office. (Technically, that was also true with the Budget Digest, although governors were hard-pressed to deny funding for projects already listed as approved in the digest.)

Legislators have complained that then-Gov. Joe Manchin was tight when it came to approving CPP funding requests, and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is tighter still. However, this being an election year, the spigot may open a bit.

***

Through the first nine months of the 2011-12 budget year, the governor's office has approved CPP grants totaling $5,177,450 -- which is a far cry from the allocations in the Budget Digests, which peaked at $39.12 million in 1998.

(Keep in mind, though, that some things that used to be delineated in the digest are now written into the Budget Bill itself. For example, the 2012-13 budget features 11 pages of text detailing spending for $2.06 million in the Fairs and Festivals line item under the Division of Education and the Arts.)

To date, Kanawha County has received 18 grants totaling $280,800. That includes two grants totaling $100,000 to the Sissonville Volunteer Fire Department for capital improvements and equipment, following the 2010 fire that destroyed its main station.

The Dunbar Police Department got a $50,000 grant, with a $20,000 grant going to the Kanawha-Charleston Soccer Association for fields. The Coal River Group got a $15,000 grant for a park access road, while the South Charleston Woman's Club got $14,000 for repairs and equipment.

The West Virginia Association of Master Gardeners and Covenant House each received $10,000 grants.

By comparison, Mingo County has picked up $251,000 in grants, including $100,000 for the Delbarton Air Transportation Park, $25,000 for Matewan Town Hall improvements, $13,500 for VFW Post 8001, and $5,000 for the Larry Joe Harless Community Center Oktoberfest (spelled with a "c" on the grant award).

(Evidently, another thing the CPP grants have in common with the Budget Digest is that counties that have finance committee chairmen -- such as House Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo -- tend to fare well in the funding process.)

***

Some other notable grants include: $105,000 to the Philip Barbour Regional Airport Authority; $150,000 to the Berkeley County Commission Inland Port Authority; a total of $6,500 to the Cabell County Commission for Chilifest; $16,500 to Huntington Little League; $2,500 to the Clay County Commission for WYAP radio, the county's non-profit, volunteer-staffed radio station; $12,000 to American Legion Post 121 in Chester for a beautification project; $4,000 for Clarksburg's Veterans Memorial Park for a dog park fountain; $32,000 for the War town museum at Big Creek High School; $40,000 for Trout for Cheat, Inc., in Preston County; $40,000 to the Tucker County Board of Education for bleachers; $100,000 for the Buckhannon-Upshur Regional Airport; and a total of $20,000 for the Gathering at Sweet Creek, a folk music festival in Wood County.

***

Finally, one of the perks of being governor is that you get to fly around the state in the King Air airplane. One of the downsides of being governor is that, on occasion, you have to fly around in that little prop plane in inclement weather conditions.

So it was Monday afternoon, when wind gusts turned the landing at Yeager Airport into a stomach-churning, white-knuckle ride.

Governor's office photographer Steve Rotsch commemorated the event, with a photograph showing Tomblin and House Speaker Rick Thompson (who, evidently, is not a fan of flying even on commercial jetliners) giving the thumbs up upon the safe touch-down ...

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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