James Broughel: A step toward sound policy

The West Virginia legislature recently wrapped up its 2020 legislative session. Several high profile bills passed this year, including one creating a bill of rights for foster parents and children. Despite some legislative successes, however, other bills remained in limbo. One notable example, HB 4645, would have required state laws and regulations to be evaluated for their effects on West Virginia’s finances and economy.

Despite bipartisan sponsors and support, and despite both the House and the Senate passing versions of the bill, the legislative session ended before HB 4645 could cross the finish line. It’s nonetheless encouraging to see lawmakers explore ways to collect better information before enacting policies with far-reaching effects.

As background, when our elected representatives consider new laws, it can be helpful for them to have what’s called a “fiscal note.” That analysis simply provides an estimate of how much government spending will change from passing a law that might, for example, create a new government program. The fiscal note would also estimate how much government revenue is likely to be affected by something like raising or lowering taxes.

At the federal level, the Congressional Budget Office produces analysis along these lines, but most states do it, too. These analyses can be influential enough to sway how legislators will vote. Indeed, legislation is often crafted with the fiscal note in mind, so as not to blow a hole in the budget.

West Virginia has lagged behind other states in this area, and HB 4645 would have changed that. It would have set up an Office of Regulatory and Fiscal Affairs under the state legislature’s Joint Committee on Government and Finance. Not only would this office have analyzed the fiscal impacts of major legislation, it would also have analyzed the broader economic impacts of the regulations that come from state agencies in the executive branch.

This is an especially significant reform in West Virginia, where state legislators play a special role in the agency regulatory process. Legislators are expected to vote on executive branch regulations before rules are enacted. Without knowing the likely repercussions of the rules, however, it’s extremely difficult for legislators to effectively exercise this good-government oversight function. At the same time, voting on their own legislation without a clear idea of how government revenues and spending are likely to be affected is like playing a high-stakes game of budgetary Russian roulette.

This is why it’s not surprising that HB 4645 passed both chambers with so much support. The vote was a unanimous 34-0 in the Senate and a near-unanimous 94-4 in the House.

Typically, popular legislation like this is promptly finalized and signed into law. But in this case, some minor amendments were made to the bill in the Senate, and the House needed to concur with the changes before the legislation could proceed to Gov. Justice’s desk for his signature. The clock ran out on the legislative session before that could happen.

Still, it’s encouraging to see the start of a shift towards more evidence-based policy. Whether or not this bill gets another look, the legislature should continue to explore ways to ensure West Virginia lawmakers have the information they need to make informed decisions.

For now, residents of the Mountain State will have to wait to be confident that their elected representatives are basing policy on the best available evidence. Fortunately, there will be more chances for the state legislature to get a bite at this apple.

James Broughel is a senior research fellow with the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and author of the study, “A Snapshot of West Virginia Regulation.”

Funerals for Sunday, March 29, 2020

Clevenger, Ralph - Noon, Hodam Creek Cemetery, Hacker Valley.

Fox, Etta - 2 p.m., Blaine Memorial Cemetery, Cottageville.