FEW COUNTIES GET MOST OF BUDGET DIGEST MONEY

(10/21/2005)

OPINION AND COMMENT By Bob Weaver

A handful of counties get most of the money from the legislatures Budget Digest and Governor's Contingency Fund, according to attorney Dan Hedges, who has filed a suit over what he and his client call significant unfairness in the distribution of taxpayer money.

Poor rural counties like Calhoun depend on a few dollars from the digest for critical needs, but money is often not forthcoming.

See "To Pork Or Not To Pork - That Is The Question?" 10/17/05

Earlier this week, a Kanawha judge ruled that legislators and staff members could be subpoenaed in the lawsuit and offered a 30-day stay for appeals.

Their appearance was vigorously fought by the legislatures attorneys.

"Ultimately, the facts have to come from those that are ultimately involved." said Hedges.

WVs "King of Pork," Del. Harold Michael (D-Hardy), chairman of the House Finance Committee, who has brought millions to his home county, has challenged Hedge's legal attempt to challenge the Digest and Contingency procedure.

Lawyers for the Legislature say Hedges' analysis has nothing to do with the legality of the Budget Digest.

The state Supreme Court has ordered a review of the Budget Digest process as part of a lawsuit filed by Hedges.

Hedges said a researcher for his office has analyzed Budget Digests dating back to 1998. Those digests have favored a few counties.

Hedges alleges lawmakers have funded pet projects through the Budget Digest at the expense of important agencies like the state Ethics Commission, ignoring critical needs around the state.

The judge said the Digest survey could be entered into testimony.

In Calhoun County, Delegate Bill Stemple obtained $250,000 from the Digest to build a questionable State Police barracks, at the same time there are critical needs for the replacement of ambulance, fire apparatus and a 911 center.

Gov. Joe Manchin vetoed the barracks project, but Del. Michael led the effort to overrule the veto, saying the Legislature can legally issue such funds.

West Virginia has had a love-hate relationship with the Digest and Contingency system, mostly because it brings needed dollars to small community fairs and projects.

At the same time, it funds major projects for legislative leaders who have tenue and power.

The Governor's Contingency Fund was originally established to hold cash in case of a state emergency, but under Gov. Cecil Underwood, it too became a pork fund.

The Digest is widely favored by incumbents in the legislature, who disburse whatever funds they can get to please voters in their districts.


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