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High court ruling upgrades W. Virginia budget process

March 29, 2001

High court ruling upgrades W. Virginia budget process



To get an item included in this year's West Virginia's state budget, lawmakers will actually have to discuss it during the annual legislative session. The change comes as the result of Tuesday's state Supreme Court ruling which orders the state to revise the "budget digest" process. It's the first step in a reform that's long overdue.

The court ruled as the result of a suit filed by former Supreme Court Justice Margaret Workman, former Del. Arley Johnson and the League of Woman Voters, the American Civil Liberties Union and Common Cause of West Virginia. The suit argued that that legislative leaders manipulated the budget process to influence lawmakers' votes on certain issues.

Up until now, the digest has been written after the session closes by a 12-member conference committee that includes the chairs of the House and Senate finance committees. It traditionally includes specific instructions on how the cash in certain budget line items is to be spent.

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The problem the court found is that sometimes the committee includes funding for items that were never discussed in the legislature, based on requests submitted as late as May or June, long after the session is over.

No more, said Justice Joseph Albright. Writing for the majority, he said that the digest should include only those projects that have been the subjects of "discussion, debate and decision prior to final legislative enactment of the budget bill."

For now, what it means is that those who want something in the budget will have to submit the requests before the session is over so that the legislature can create a paper trail to show that there was some in-session deliberation on the request.

This sounds to us like an attempt to comply without really changing anything. What former justice Workman and the other groups were seeking is a budget process that has a real relationship to the debate that takes place in the state capital. The ultimate goal should be a budget that is debated and voted on by all lawmakers before the session ends.

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