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Spending with both hands

April 21, 1997

Sunday's special session of the West Virginia Legislature lasted about four hours, allowing lawmakers to bring the state's child-support enforcement laws into compliance with federal statutes. Unfortunately, lawmakers didn't stop there.

Instead, after some spirited negotiations, they agreed to increase the borrowing authority of the Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority from the current $80 million limit to $137 million. We're concerned because we're not so sure the authority has any idea of how the money's being spent.

Our concern was raised back in February, when Deputy Director Frank Shumaker came to a legislative oversight committee asking that the borrowing limit be upped by $20 million. Asked why the authority needed extra money, he said it was because the estimated cost of some projects had doubled in a year's time. For example, the proposed cost for the Eastern Regional Jail in Berkeley County went from $7.8 million to $13 million in that time.

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An hour after their meeting with the legislative oversight committee, the authority met again and - oops - decided that it needed $47.7 million instead of the $20 million additional it had sought earlier in the day.

At the time, Herald-Mail counseled lawmakers to call in the architects and engineers and re-confirm construction estimates. Building costs may have risen in a year, but they didn't double.

Any hopes we had that lawmakers would take charge of the situation were dashed Sunday when the House amended the funding bill to force the the authority to spend money only on projects on its list, but said it could, if it so chose, ignore its own priority rankings!

The Senate rejected that change, then amended the bill to allow the authority to spend money on projects that aren't even on its own list.

This is a recipe for fiscal chaos, and for new projects like Berkeley County's first Regional Jail, declared outmoded six years after it was built. It's a pity voters can't declare the same thing about the legislature, and replace it with something better.

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