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Statehouse Beat: WV’s reserve funds dwindle

For the last three years, we’ve heard about how legislators have been “sweeping accounts” or using re-appropriated balances — money various state agency and divisions have squirreled away from year to year — to close budget shortfalls.

Although the amount of money put away in those accounts has shrunk over the years, there’s still a sizable amount of funds set aside.

In 2014, the last time I took more than a cursory look at the state’s unencumbered balances, the accounts totaled $390 million.

By 2016, when then-Auditor Glen Gainer outlined the surplus funds to the Legislature, the amount had shrunk to $288.8 million.

The latest numbers from the state Budget Office show the amount of the uncommitted reserve funds is down to $129.27 million — a third of what it was three years ago, but still a significant nest egg for these various divisions and agencies.

The state Senate has perhaps been most generous in using its surplus to balance budgets and cover expenses, such as the ongoing renovations of Capitol restrooms in the general vicinity of Senate offices.

In 2014, the Senate had squirreled away $28.77 million — enough to pay all Senate salaries and expenses with no additional funding for about 4½ years. Currently, that bankroll is down to $5.65 million.

The House of Delegates, which never kept as big a pile of surplus, had $8.03 million in reserve funds; now, it’s at $5.56 million.

The Governor’s Civil Contingency Fund, one of the bigger reserve funds, was at $24.95 million in 2014. It’s now down to $5.39 million. The fund, which varies greatly depending on natural and other disasters, started the fiscal year with a $68.45 million balance, with some $62 million committed to flood recovery.

The state Development Office, which oversees a number of grant and business assistance programs, had an unencumbered balance of $22.82 million in 2014, but has just $3.24 million currently.

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House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, said he’ll make a decision by the end of the month on whether to run for mayor of Charleston.

Nelson’s exit from the Legislature would be a significant loss, since he brought considerable reason and rationale to the budget process. (As did former Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, R-Putnam, whose approach to the budget process was so sane and sound that he was pushed to the periphery last session so that far-right Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Upshur, could push his wacky, trickle-down, Reaganomics-on-acid income tax cut proposal.)

Hall’s departure from the Legislature, and Nelson’s potential departure, could become part of a potential tsunami of legislators bailing out in 2018.

Just off the top of my head, Delegate Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell, announced she will run for county commission; Delegate Carol Miller, R-Cabell, announced she is running for Congress; and Delegate Nancy Foster, R-Putnam, called it quits after eight months in the House, concluding that legislative service demanded too much of her time.

One reason, I think, for the mass departures is that legislative service has become a long, unpleasant slog.

For the past two years, impasses on the budget have dragged on through much of June. Since legislators have done nothing to resolve systemic problems with the budget and sources of revenue -— as Gov. Jim Justice succinctly said of the 2017-18 budget, “All this does is kick the can down the road, and there’s massive budget holes in the out years” -— there’s every reason to expect another budget impasse dragging into June 2018.

Also, there has been a great loss of collegiality in the Legislature.

Legislators used to be able to face off in furious debate over an issue the House or Senate floor, then meet for a cocktail downtown that evening. Now, there’s much more of an “us” versus “them” mentality, and battles over legislative matters are taken much more personally.

In short, the unpleasantness of legislative service has come to outweigh the merits of legislative service.

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Speaking of Karnes, it looks like nothing will come of the news, first reported here, that he either voted illegally in Florida in November 2010, or did not meet the five-year residency requirement when he ran for the state Senate in 2014.

I understand Senate staffers began researching the matter, but were instructed to stand down by Senate leadership.

Meanwhile, state labor officials — Karnes has treated labor unions like mortal enemies -— had attorneys research a possible legal challenge to unseat Karnes, but concluded it is essentially impossible to overturn the results of an election after the election is certified.

The best opportunity to remove Karnes from the Senate will come at the ballot box next year, and Karnes will have formidable opposition in both the primary and (if he survives that) general elections.

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I see that Justice is ignoring my advice to stay on the sidelines for the road bond campaign.

Meanwhile, Justice’s former intergovernmental affairs director, Derek Scarbro, one of the departures after the governor’s party flip, has been named director of the Appalachian Hatchery, a Robert C. Byrd Institute initiative to develop and diversify the economy in West Virginia’s 20 southernmost counties.

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Finally, more proof that elections have consequences, even when it comes to our TV viewing habits.

At the end of the budget impasse, the Legislature ended up cutting West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s 2017-18 state appropriation by 22 percent, or nearly $1 million.

While false rumors surfaced during the special session — and I’m fairly certain not from WVPB officials — that the cuts would force elimination of public broadcasting’s legislative coverage, ongoing cuts in state funding necessitated reductions in personnel and cutting some programming.

As WVPB Executive Director Scott Finn explained last week, that included eliminating a Saturday morning block of British television comedies produced by the BBC that were simply too costly to justify retaining. As we’ve since discovered, the programming had a small but very loyal (and very vocal) audience.

The message to those disappointed viewers should be: Don’t blame public broadcasting. Blame your legislator.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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