Garrett Ballengee, David Williams: State Wastes $330M in Taxpayer Money
Originally appeared in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
West Virginia is in the throes of a budget crisis. According to many state decision-makers, the $353 million shortfall is the result of reduced revenues due to the shaky state economy and plummeting coal and natural gas prices.
No doubt this is partly true, but it glosses over the real cause of the state’s financial woes: For years, West Virginia lawmakers have been spending like drunken sailors with little regard for taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars.
That’s the finding of a new report released today by the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy, the Mountain State’s free market think tank, and the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, America’s leading authority on waste, fraud and abuse of tax dollars.
The publication scoured the West Virginia state budget, as well as audits, grants, contracts and check registers, to identify more than $330 million wasted by state government in 2015.
For example, state taxpayers spent $125,000 to print the Blue Book, which serves as little more than a high school yearbook for state lawmakers and top bureaucrats.
More than $1,000 went to four state lawmakers who scammed West Virginians out of money by fudging their mileage reimbursement claims.
The Division of Highways wastes as much as $50 million a year by failing to use construction crews efficiently and paying too much for materials. That’s $50 million that could have been used to build highways, widen roads, patch potholes or repair bridges.
Shepherd University staff used state credit cards to finance wild spending sprees. Taxpayers picked up the tab for limousine rides, fancy steak dinners and a $57 drug store run that included 72 condoms, two large bottles of sexual lubricant and two bottles of a “natural sexual enhancement” drink.
West Virginia’s Courtesy Patrol — the fleet of white trucks that assist stranded motorists on state highways — fritters away almost $3 million annually because the service isn’t competitively bid, it fails to capitalize on advertising opportunities and its overhead is outrageously expensive.
State leaders even pour money into activities that many West Virginians find offensive. Handouts to the state’s controversial dog racing industry add up to about $14 million a year. A $7,200 grant went to a politically divisive, environmental extremist film festival in Shepherdstown that attacked fossil fuels. The Appalachian Queer Film Festival also recently received state tax dollars.
Many other fairs and festivals are on the dole, too. State taxpayers spent nearly $3 million to subsidize 180 community events across the state last year. The West Virginia Strawberry Festival raked in $25,000, the Dunbar Critter Dinner devoured $8,300, and the Franklin Fishing Derby hooked $6,200.
Events like these are enjoyable and create community spirit, but they should be funded by those who attend. Instead, state lawmakers force taxpayers who don’t want to attend, or can’t afford to attend, to subsidize other people’s fun.
The West Virginia University Foundation, an organization with over $1 billion in assets, also benefitted from government largesse. In the 16-month period between July 30, 2014, and November 30, 2015, the WVU Foundation snatched up more than $4.3 million in taxpayers’ money.
Clearly, West Virginia does not have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem. Fortunately, it’s a problem with an easy solution.
State lawmakers have a golden opportunity to close the budget gap by simply cutting the fat exposed in the report.
The governor and state legislators should go a step further and work toward preventing wasted tax dollars in the future by empowering the attorney general with the necessary authority to uncover and prosecute examples of fraud, waste, abuse and misconduct related to public funds, as well as establishing an independent commission with the ability to comb state government for more opportunities for savings.
Now, not everyone will agree on what constitutes waste or unnecessary spending in the state budget. That said, it would be impossible to look at our state budget and say that every single dollar is money well-spent. Until that happens, lawmakers should not ask West Virginians for another nickel in higher taxes.
Lawmakers should rein in runaway government spending so that West Virginia’s hard-working taxpayers can keep more of their hard-earned money in their pockets.
Garrett Ballengee is the executive director of the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy.