DON'T STEP ON MY PORK - Budget Digest Before Supreme Court

(06/16/2005)

By Bob Weaver

The WV legislature is valiantly defending their Budget Digest before the West Virginia Supreme Court, a political pork system that helps incumbents stay in office, but one that contains procedures that are used by a select few to dispense about $35 million annually back to counties each year.

There is gross unfairness in the distribution of the pork.

Powerful senators and delegates get the lion's share for their districts.

While House Finance Chairman Harold Michael gets millions from the digest and contingency funds to fund a college, schools, hunting clubs, cemeteries, playgrounds and community buildings for his rural Hardy County, but other counties like Calhoun or Doddridge gets a few dollars for their fire departments, schools or fairs.

While Michael is a good example, he certainly is not the only one.

Small counties like Calhoun, unfortunately depend on a few dollars from the digest to sustain basic services.

House Speaker Bob Kiss says that is just the way it works. Tenure and power bring the pork home. He said that's what a good representative does - "Work for their district."

Pork is a really "good thing" if you're on the receiving end, unfairness not under consideration.

Attorneys for the WV Legislature say the state Supreme Court has no business tampering with their Budget Digest, it is really an issue of separation of powers.

Attorneys for Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin and House Speaker Bob Kiss argued that the lawsuit illegally attempts to make legislators testify about their pet projects. They have asked that the court un-freeze their stay on the Budget Digest.

Attorneys did admit to the Supreme Court Wednesday that legislative leaders don’t follow the procedures for preparing the annual Budget Digest that were set down in a 2001 court decision.

They say they don't have to.

During yesterday's hearing, House and Senate attorneys asked the justices to throw out a suit filed by Charleston attorney Dan Hedges.

It is the third challenge of the Budget Digest process in 14 years.

They say the judicial branch does not have constitutional authority to tell the legislative branch what procedures it must follow when setting spending priorities.

"What the public sees is that a small group of legislators can direct the expenditures of $35 million, and make it stick," said Chief Justice Joseph Albright.

He said the court's decision was intended to expand accountability in the digest process.

The earlier court decision requires House and Senate budget conferees to keep written or audio records of their meetings and deliberations on digest items, requiring "discussion, debate and decision."

There are no minutes when a few selected legislators make the money decisions, generally behind closed doors.

"I think the whole Budget Digest process stinks," said Justice Robin Davis.

Senate counsel Ray Ratliff said eliminating the Budget Digest will not prevent powerful legislators from getting funding for their pet projects.

"When the Budget Digest is eliminated, the appropriations will still be in the budget, and not available for the concerns raised by Mr. Hedges," he said.

"A select group of legislators, or the speaker of the House, or a powerful chairman of a committee will still be able to go to the executive branch, and seek a portion of these line-items," Ratliff said. "That will occur, and will probably mean those in power will get more money in their districts than is the case now."

Judge Spike Maynard said legislators should not be able to fund their pork projects "without any open deliberation and without a scribble on any piece of paper."

Key legislators not only use digest funds to help their own counties, but they also use the funding stream to broker politics with less-powerful delegates.

Making a case for unfairness is a hard sell in politics.

Interviewing dozens of Hardy County citizens regarding the work of Del. Michael, without exception, they said "Leave the man alone, he helps us."

"When we get stuck for money, we call Harold," said a Hardy County educator.

When confronted about unfairness, suggesting that dozens of counties receive the short end of the stick, they didn't seem to care.

Mentioning that Del. Michael is the Finance Chairman for all West Virginians, they were generally unresponsive.


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