Editorials, Opinion

Special session could’ve been worse, could’ve been better

We have mixed feelings about the special session that ended Tuesday. It could have been worse (à la long, expensive ones of the past), but it could also have been better, considering some of things addressed should have been handled during the regular session.

On the one hand, Gov. Jim Justice did the fiscally responsible thing by calling for the special session to mostly coincide with the already-scheduled interim meetings. Because lawmakers were set to gather anyway, there was minimal extra expense in calling the special session. (Special sessions and interim meetings involve extra compensation to legislators, but interims are already built into the calendar and, theoretically, the budget.) However, Justice did call for the special session to start on Sunday, while interims didn’t start until Monday, so there was some additional cost to taxpayers.

In general, our primary complaint about special sessions is that legislators get paid extra for not doing the work they could have — and should have — done during the regular legislative session. We view that as rewarding irresponsible behavior, though we also acknowledge that sometimes a special session is necessary, as was the case this year.

Because, on the other hand, the potential federal clawback of $465 million by the U.S. Department of Education meant the Legislature was unable to finalize the state budget by March 11.

Word came in late April that the state’s waiver for those federal funds was granted, and, as MetroNews’ Brad McElhinny reported, administration officials subsequently said there was $500 million to $600 million in surplus spending still to be allocated.

Justice’s requests totaled almost $326 million, with about $85 million of that specifically designated to come out of the surplus. He didn’t name a dollar amount for making the Departments of Health and Human Services’ budgets whole, but legislators allocated them over $188 million total. All combined, it comes to over $514 million.

Taking all that into consideration, we think there are some items on the special session wish list (including several policy items unrelated to spending) that could have been taken care of during the regular session. After all, it sounds like the state would have had $100 million or so to play with, even if the U.S. Department of Education had taken back its $465 million. A good portion of that could have been allocated to the West Virginia Department of Health — which ultimately received $183 million — during the regular session instead of leaving the department in fear of being severely underfunded for the coming fiscal year.

Justice’s policy requests — to amend certain aspects of state code — could have also been addressed during the regular session if so much time hadn’t been wasted on pointless culture war (or just pointless) bills. Legislators literally spent days debating bills that went nowhere when they could have used that time to consider legislation that would have improved our state — or at least addressed specific issues. Instead, they focused on bills that were solutions looking for problems.

All in all, we’re not thrilled there had to be a special session, but we understand there were extenuating circumstances, and we appreciate that the special session was handled with greater responsibility than it has been in the past. We hope that similar, if not greater, restraint is shown in the future.