(12/11/2002)
Editor's Note: Gov. Bob Wise has already asked for a 3.4% reduction in agency budgets, with an additional 10% cut-back starting July 1. West Virginia joins dozens of states who are finding themselves in a severe financial crunch. Gov. Wise is announcing a plan to restructure state government toward efficiency during the next two years, an effort stated by several previous governors, ending in failure. It is a political hot potato, a challenge Wise seems to be willing to take on.

A report on Gov. Wise's efforts are from the CHARLESTON DAILY MAIL on-line.

Changes inevitable, Wise says Budget crunch forces state into restructuring

Jim Wallace Daily Mail staff

Deanna Wrenn Daily Mail staff

Tuesday December 10, 2002

Gov. Bob Wise told about 2,700 state employees at 15 locations around West Virginia

today that he would "ask the Legislature for broad authority" to restructure state government over the course of the next year.

That would include merging some agencies, streamlining others, not filling many vacant positions and making better use of technology, he said.

Wise told the employees from a myriad of state agencies they can share with him in the many choices of how to restructure government, but the one choice they don't have is to leave the structure as it is.

"Only restructuring how we operate will meet the challenge we face here," he said. "We need to make adjustments and we need to make them as soon as possible."

During an 82-minute program, Wise addressed about 460 state workers at the Cultural Center and about 2,200 more connected by video links in 14 other locations around the state.

The governor took eight minutes to speak generally about the challenge facing the state, followed by a 31-minute Power Point presentation with details on why the state faces huge budget shortfalls in the years ahead and the process he wants to follow to avoid them.

Charts in the presentation helped him demonstrate why the state faces deficits of $250 million in fiscal year 2004, $216.5 million in 2005, $181 million in 2005 and $195 million in 2006, if no action is taken.

"Without restructuring, we will always have spending that far exceeds the money coming in," Wise said.

In the remaining 43 minutes of the "town hall" meeting, he took questions directly from members of the audience at the Cultural Center and others read by Administration Secretary Greg Burton from e-mail and fax messages sent in from the remote locations.

In answer to one question from Summersville, Wise said he doesn't have a complete list yet of the agencies that should be merged, but combining the Information Services & Communications Division with the Governor's Office of Technology is one obvious choice. The state also has at least four agencies handling health care that could be merged, he said.

After the program, Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, said giving the governor broad authority to restructure government is "fine in concept," but the Legislature would have to have ongoing oversight, and major changes would have to go to the full Legislature for approval.

"I can't see us giving him a blank check," he said, but he added that he didn't think Wise was asking for that much unlimited authority.

The first applause from the audience came when Marty Gibson of the Division of Public Transit complained that state government has too many computer systems that don't work together. She said that when she had spoken with Auditor Glen Gainer about the problem, he blamed it on turf battles among agencies.

Wise replied that she had stated the situation better than he could have, although he had earlier said the state could save millions of dollars by getting state computers to work with each other. He later told reporters that he would end turf battles "through leadership at the top."

In response to another question, Wise said he considers the unfunded liability in Workers' Compensation, which could be as much as $2.6 billion, to be "every bit as serious a situation" as the projected budget deficit and he would have a plan for paying down that liability by putting funds into a so-called lockbox.

Wise also rejected raising the coal severance tax, saying it would make West Virginia coal unable to compete in the market, and said the state would not cut back on economic development projects because they're needed to get the state out of its downward economic spiral.

Prior to the start of today's event, many state employees expressed concern about fear of job cuts or other budget reductions. Juanita Ward, a worker at the Governor's Office of Fiscal Risk Analysis and Management, said she heard many concerns from her fellow state employees.

"I have heard the trepidation," she said before Wise's presentation started. "We've been under budget constraints so long that we've kind of adapted to that, but the main concerns now are job cuts."

Division of Highways worker James Hash, who has worked for the state for 29 years, also was worried about layoffs. "We are all concerned to some degree," he said prior to the speech.

Many were reassured about job security after Wise stressed that he wasn't suggesting job cuts without restructuring government and finding other ways to save money instead.

Linda Collins, who works with the Department of Rehabilitation, said she was glad the governor was trying to tackle government inefficiencies without taking jobs. "I'm glad he's discovered the problems and is working on a solution," she said.

Renate Pore, director of the Governor's Cabinet for Children and Families, said she felt much better about the budget situation after Wise's speech.

"Everybody's read about the $250 million shortfall, and I know that people were concerned," Pore said. "But I really do feel reassured now that the state is handling this as best we can."

A new Web site, the West Virginia Employee Communication Network, was unveiled today at www.wvgov.org. The site allows anyone with computer access to get information about the state's budget and submit streamlining suggestions via e- mail or regular mail. Wise's presentation was also scheduled to be available on the site after the conclusion of the meeting.

Writer Jim Wallace can be reached at 348-4819.


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