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Can elected officials divorce state spending from politics?

December 12, 2000

Can elected officials divorce state spending from politics?



Despite his victory in the West Virginia governor's race, Bob Wise is still complaining about what he says was Gov. Cecil Underwood's election-year spending from the Governor's Civil Contingent Fund.

The problem is, however, is that Wise can't point to a single project that was funded for political reasons. We advise Wise to rewrite the spending guidelines if he feels it's necessary, but stop carping about the election. You won, sir, so stop acting like you didn't.

At issue is Gov. Underwood's use of about $16 million from the Contingent Fund, which had a balance of $22.3 million as of July 1. Wise notes that spending took place even though Underwood had decreed a spending freeze earlier in the year. Wise cites a Charleston Gazette article which says that the fund now has a balance of $5.9 million, not enough to pay $6 million in outstanding bills for flood-relief projects.

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Wise's challenge looks weaker when contrasted with a spending breakdown which notes that the bulk of the cash went for flood and drought relief, water and sewer projects and aid to volunteer fire departments. Less than $2 million, the figures indicate, went to projects some might classify as non-essential, like money for school bands and athletic teams.

Even Wise says all of the projects probably deserved funding, but adds that the larger issue is how tight the budget is likely to be in the coming year.

To that, Underwood's defenders reply that the governor had cash to spare in the Contingent Fund because he'd managed it carefully over the previous three years. Even top Democrats are hesitant to deny the governor the discretionary cash the fund provides.

The answer may come from the West Virginia Supreme Court, which said Friday it wants to hear arguments on how the Contingent Fund is used, as part of a lawsuit challenging the legality of the legislative budget digest. A few are hoping the court will take some of the politics out of spending decisions, but until we see a plan, it sounds an awful lot like wishful thinking to us.

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