CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gov. Tomblin recently came up with an additional $15 million in funding for the state budget. While the Governor decided to spend the money on education initiatives, Medicaid, and other programs, there was little explanation of where the money came from or his reasons for spending it the way he did -- and no input from the Legislature.
The governor is no usurper or tinhorn dictator. He was just doing what West Virginia law allows. Despite the fact that few things affect the daily lives of West Virginians more than how the state spends its money, that power is largely vested in the hands of one person -- the governor -- with the public and our elected representatives having little say in the matter.
That's no way to run a $20 billion enterprise in which we all have a vital stake, from the quality of our schools to the safety of our roads and the security of our prisons.
This week the Legislature will begin the process of approving the state budget for 2014. But it's little more than a rubber stamp. We won't see multiple, competing proposals and major debates. In fact, we won't see much of a debate at all.
The governor's office dominates almost every aspect of the budget. The governor writes the initial budget bill; estimates how much money the state will have to spend on highways, schools and other needs; prepares most of the cost estimates for new legislation; and makes almost all of the modifications that occur during the year the budget covers, like the recent hiring freeze. The governor also has the authority to reduce or eliminate programs and services after the Legislature passes the budget.
The revenue estimate provided by the governor is a particularly powerful tool. It sets the maximum spending levels for services we rely on every day, and the Legislature cannot spend any money that is not included in the estimate. When revenue projections turn out to be too high or too low, it is the governor who orders adjustments, which are usually made quickly and with little public notice or explanation.
The recent budget increase, for example, was announced in a letter from the governor to the House and Senate leadership. The governor then told the Legislature how that additional money should be allocated, with little explanation beyond that.
Another big club the governor wields is the cost estimate he is able to attach to legislation. For example the governor's Department of Revenue prepares about 40 percent of all these estimates each year. There is no equivalent body that the Legislature can turn to for independent analysis of spending proposals. This makes it impossible for the Legislature to challenge executive branch agencies if lawmakers suspect agencies are stacking the deck in their favor.
The Legislature does have the power to change the budget bill, but its ability to do so is limited by the governor's revenue estimates. And any changes can be vetoed by the governor, which is nearly impossible for the Legislature to overturn. The governor's power over the purse in West Virginia is remarkably strong compared to other states. It is the primary reason that our Governor is second only to Maryland in overall authority, according to political scientist Thad Beyle. West Virginia is one of only two states where the governor has full responsibility over the budget and where the Legislature may not increase his or her budget. This concentration of power is unhealthy, and can lead to a lack of public involvement and accountability in setting the state's priorities.
The Legislature could remedy these problems in a number of ways. It could require a public comment period while the budget is being drafted so more people have a voice in how their money is spent. West Virginia could join the 40 states that have an independent non-partisan, legislative office for spending and tax issues, which could do its own revenue and cost estimates and publish the findings online so anyone can see how budget decisions impact their lives.
The budget is the most important bill passed each year. It determines the quality of education that our children receive; the adequacy of highways, airports and railways that businesses need to thrive; and security of our communities. It is too important to place all of that responsibility in the hands of one person.Boettner is the executive director and O'Leary is a policy analyst with the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, wvpolicy.org.