(01/16/2006)
OPINION AND COMMENT by Bob Weaver

House Speaker Bob Kiss and Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin are considering abolishing the Budget Digest, long known as the WV politician's favorite method of porking and vote getting, particularly for incumbents.

House Finance Chairman Harold Michael said Kiss will discuss dropping the Budget Digest with leaders, and will likely take action to abolish it.

That must be bad news for Michael, who has porked more digest money to his home county than anyone else. There are more signs and buildings with his name on it than you can shake a stick at.

A study showed Michael's county got about $528 a person from Charleston (including the governor's contingency fund and other funds the powerful chairman controls) and rural counties like Doddridge got about $30 a person.

He built a community college during the time when the legislature was wanting to close schools like Glenville State, and yet today, it has few students. (See earlier Herald stories on Michael's pork projects from the local cemetery to his rod and gun club)

Interestingly, it was Speaker Kiss who defended Michael when he was called to task for over-sprinkling cash from Charleston.

He said Michael was just doing a good job for his constituents.

The Digest has long been an issue of discontent, from its basic porking controlled by legislative leadership to questioning its legality.

Michael defends the digest, saying that it involves a fraction of state spending. He said the other option is for lawmakers to increase the level of detail in the annual budget bill, as was done decades ago.

Certainly the spending of Digest money is generally not directed toward critical needs, such as Calhoun's EMS trying to obtain funds for new ambulances or local fire services trying to provide basic services.

The Digest funds "good things," but generally not the most important ones.

The decisions about what to fund is political, what funding would attract the most votes for incumbents to get re-elected.

Calhoun residents and agencies scramble to get the attention of Del. Bill Stemple, who distributes a small amount of money each year. There was a time when the county failed to get a dime from the Digest.

The Digest is crafted months after passage of the state's multi billion-dollar budget. The current Digest, greatly reduced, earmarks $15.2 million for more than 1,000 beneficiaries, from public libraries and schools to senior centers and private nonprofit groups.

It also lists another $11.3 million meant to honor previous legislative commitments, such as public transit grants.

Charleston attorney Dan Hedges, who has long advocated for public causes, claims the Digest has unfairly skewed the state's funding priorities.

The state Supreme Court has ordered a review of the Digest process, after a suit claims agencies such as the Ethics Commission have been shorted funding in favor of pet projects earmarked for the Digest.


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