MOUTH OF THE ELK - Bye, Bye West Virginia Pie, Well, Maybe...

(02/08/2006)

By Bob Weaver

WV Supreme Court Chief Justice Robin Davis is sticking with her long held belief that the Budget Digest should be ended because it puts control of millions of dollars in the hands of a few powerful legislators.

Those incumbent legislators use the pork to get re-elected year after year.

The WV Senate is balking at killing the Budget Digest.

Members of the House of Delegates voted to get rid of the controversial Budget Digest with a 90-5 vote, citing continued legal attacks over the process.

WVs current "king of pork", house finance chairman Harold Michael, has funneled millions of dollars through the Digest to his home county of Hardy, while other counties have received very little.

Legislators have often claimed the funds are issued by county population.

"I think it's a unanimous opinion in the Senate to keep it," Senate Finance Chairman Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas, with some senators saying it could bring back an old practice of powerful lawmakers slipping pet projects into the budget's hundreds of line items.

"The Senate system is the right way to do it. That's the way the House ought to do it," said Senate Minority Leader Vic Sprouse, R-Kanawha, claiming delegates use the money for political pork to get re-elected.

Sprouse says the Senate uses the fund to take care of defined projects, issuing it fairly.

"We are the voice of the people," said Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, who said he plans to vote to keep the digest.

Both House Speaker Bob Kiss and Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin have defended the digest, but said they are tired of defending it.

The Senate Democratic leadership may be split, but Majority Whip Billy Wayne Bailey, D-Wyoming, said he would vote to keep the digest, but he could change his mind.

Sen. Bailey funneled at least a half-million dollars to his employer, the Wyoming County senior center, whose leader is now under federal indictment for mishandling millions of dollars.

Sprouse contends that legislators will go back to "the good old days," money is still going to be spent for pet projects hidden in the budget. House Finance Committee Chairman Michael says the 43-year provision fell victim to various court battles.

Michael says a Kanawha County judge's ruling that legislative staff would have to testify on how the Digest was put together was the final blow.

Michael says the bottom line is the legislature has the power to appropriate money. He says the Budget Digest language may be gone, but the system that replaces it could be similar.

If that's true, Michael can still find a way to funnel those millions to his home county, everything from building a new community college to giving his local cemetery over $100,000.

Poor counties with few voters, stand by for more crumbs, unless you've elected a power hitter to Charleston.


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