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Messages worth hearing

February 14, 1997

If we give you a raise now, you may not get the retirement benefits you need later. That's what Gov. Cecil Underwood told West Virginia's teachers in his "State of the State" address on Wednesday. Swallowing that will mean accepting Underwood's premise that prosperity will come only after the state meets all the obligations undertaken by past governments.

In return for no raises, Underwood said the state would add an additional $32 million to the State Teachers Retirement System "to keep the fund solvent and protect our improving bond rating."

Granting raises without adding cash to the retirement system, he said, would return the state to the practice of doing what's politically expedient, while ignoring long-term consequences.

Keeping past promises and making sure previously passed laws work was a recurring theme of the speech. Underwood indicated that his priority would not be new programs and initiatives, but looking at what the state has in place now and improving it.

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One of the few significant changes he called for was the shift of the Office of Information and Technology to the governor's office, where Underwood can oversee programs to standardize state systems and avoid problems like those reported in a recent legislative audit.

The audit showed that after the state spent $2 million to develop a system caseworkers could use to assess allegations of child abuse and neglect, personnel used it less than half the time. Furthermore, management had no tracking system to assess how well the system was working.

Underwood is not the orator who will inspire cheers or bring a tear to your eye. But the given the tendency of most elected officials to promise the moon, his message is remarkable: We will make government work, not by enacting grand new programs, but by looking at the mundane details of how government works and improving it from the bottom up.

His other message - that sacrifice is required for success - in one heard too seldom. For now, citizens should give him a chance to show what he can do.

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