West Virginia is suffering from the confluence of too many needs for government spending and inadequate revenues to meet all of these needs. There are two competing proposals to deal with these issues. One is to raise additional revenues to enable an investment in infrastructure repair and tourism / commerce marketing, and the other is to decrease all spending to match up with the expected revenues. I’ll leave it to the imagination to guess which political parties are aligning on which side of these issues.
Whatever is going to happen this year is not germane to this discussion. I myself hope that we can stir ourselves from our coal-induced lassitude and raise the funds to begin to tackle the abysmal state of our roadways since this is a necessary step to attract visitors and new businesses, but I realize the odds of anyone who drinks from the Grover Norquist Kool-Aid cup actually supporting increased taxation is next to nil.
No, this discussion is aimed at reducing the overall levels of government administration that we are saddled with in this state. One is the need to maintain two legislative bodies, and the other is to maintain the number of counties within this state as was needed back in the 1800’s. If we did rationalization within these areas, significant savings would be achieved.
Let’s start with the Legislature. The State of West Virginia, like all states in the US save one, has a bicameral legislature, with a House of Delegates and a Senate chamber. The total number of legislators in this state is 134 (100 delegates, 34 senators). With a shrinking population of about 1.8 million, this means that there is a state legislator for each 13,400 residents in the state. That is far too many elected legislators for this state. Looking at the finances for each chamber, the 2016 budget appropriated $6.0 million for the Senate, $8.9 million for the House of Delegates, and $6.8 million for the Joint Committee on Government and Finance. What do we get for these expenditures? A dysfunctional system where each chamber plays its own version of games aimed at preventing work from happening in an efficient manner. In this state, the chambers take turns at being Lucy holding the football, and Charley Brown charging up to take the kick, only to fall flat on his back once more due to Lucy pulling the ball away. We get a legislative branch that is more interested in power struggles between the chambers than a body that is united in working to solve the State’s problems.
I grew up in Nebraska, which is the exception to the rule for state legislatures in the US. Nebraska has a unicameral legislature with 49 non-partisan Senators in the sole chamber. Nebraska adopted this structure in 1936 in the depths of the depression, so there is precedent in having fiscal necessity drive structural change in state government. It’s been more than 40 years since I moved from the state, but the efficiency of only having a single legislative chamber is still an example that should be emulated.
Let’s say that West Virginia decided to adopt a unicameral legislature. Fix the number of representatives at 67, or half of the current total. That still gives an elected representative for every 27,000 citizens of the state. Looking at the budget, if you cut the 3 appropriations in half, you would save about $11 million just in salaries and support staff budgets. This is not insignificant and the increased efficiencies in accomplishing the state’s business would more than justify the change to our government.
The second area where there is more government than we need is at the county level. It once made sense to have 55 counties in a small state like West Virginia when the limitations of transportation meant it could take a full day to travel to the county seat. No longer is there a need to have this many counties given the improvements over the past century in transportation and communications. Now, each county is its own governmental fiefdom, replete with its own school district which is often the largest employer in the county. We have 55 different county commissions, each with 3 members, and salaries averaging about $38,000 per year, plus the costs for all support staff. We have 55 sheriffs, 55 county clerks, and all of these functions have their own support staff. We have 55 school superintendents, and associated support administrative staff. If there was a serious look at consolidating counties, we might end up with about 30 counties. Think of the potential savings that can come from a true rationalization of government services back to a level that makes sense.
County governments often are the home of fiscal shenanigans, whether it be outright embezzlement, crony hiring, or other misdeed. Reducing the number of counties in this state should also result in a reduction in fraud and waste.
Unfortunately, county governments and school boards are often the only sources of employment in poorer counties. These counties will fight tooth and nail to keep the source of their power intact. No one will wish to cede any authority. That’s why I’d love to see someone really conduct a study to see what these two forms of government rationalization would really save. Only if we as citizens of this state realize that much of the “waste” in government is due to its inefficient structure will we ever get momentum to change this.