Lawmakers Don’t Trust Selves

Some of the amendments legislators have suggested for state Senate President Jeff Kessler’s Future Fund bill have interesting undertones. The unspoken plea of some lawmakers seems to be, “Stop me – before I spend!”

Kessler’s bill is worthwhile (see the “Keep Future Fund Proposal on Track” editorial at left). Suggested amendments to it have fallen into two categories: limits on how much money will go into it and restrictions on how the funds can be spent.

Especially interesting is one suggestion, that Mountain State voters be asked to approve a constitutional amendment limiting how money from the Future Fund could be spent. Among the proposed restrictions would be one banning legislators from spending any Future Fund proceeds except amounts earned through investments. The principal would have to be left intact.

Clearly, lawmakers suggesting that are thinking about the state’s Rainy Day Fund. It was established years ago, with the goal of building up a cash reserve the state could use in case of emergencies such as natural disasters. The fund’s two accounts now hold about $920 million.

Not for long, however. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and legislators are preparing to raid the Rainy Day Fund – not for a one-time emergency, but instead to deal with plans for ongoing increases in spending. Some state senators were primed to take as much as $125 million out of the fund for the coming fiscal year.

At that rate, the Rainy Day Fund would be bone dry in less than a decade. A plan more likely to be enacted would siphon off about $80 million.

There are no solid safeguards against misuse of the Rainy Day Fund. And, though Kessler had included some limits on Future Fund spending, they would not have been foolproof, either.

Why? Because what spending discipline the Legislature giveth, the Legislature also can “taketh” away.

Constitutional amendments are another story. No matter how hungry they are for money to spend, lawmakers cannot disobey the state constitution. Kessler, who understands the need to build and preserve a substantial Future Fund, agrees with some constitutional limits on how it is used.

Will the Legislature go that route? Or will lawmakers borrowing heavily from the Rainy Day Fund decide they want the Future Fund available for similar raids kill the constitutional amendment idea? Either way, even the suggestion that future legislatures’ hands should be tied by an amendment reminds one of an alcoholic begging friends out for a night on the town to keep him from drinking.

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West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, an outspoken Republican, is being supported by some of the nation’s top Democrats.

Democrat leaders in the state House of Delegates had attempted to enact legislation that would have tied Morrisey’s hands in carrying out some of his duties as the state’s chief legal officer. As this newspaper has pointed out, Democrat lawmakers never discussed such punitive actions while another member of their party, Darrell McGraw, served five terms as attorney general.

It appears the anti-Morrisey legislation is dead, at least for now. But before it was shelved, attorneys general from other states heard of it – and reacted with alarm. Dozens of them, both Republicans and Democrats, signed a letter to West Virginia legislators urging them to reject the proposed attack on Morrisey.

Referring to the House bill as “unprecedented,” the attorneys general urged Mountain State legislators to reject it. “We are not aware of any statute that imposes such a broadly sweeping prohibition on an attorney general’s office – at the state or federal levels,” members of the National Association of Attorneys General wrote of one provision in the bill.

One might have expected Morrisey’s peers within the GOP to leap to his defense. But it says something about the partisan in-state attack on him that Democrats, too, found it objectionable.

Myer can be reached at mmyer@theintelligencer.net.