West Virginia editorial roundup
Recent editorials from West Virginia newspapers:
The Journal on an effort for West Virginia agencies to spend $100 million less than they had planned for the current fiscal year:
It felt good to loosen our belts for awhile, didn’t it? Unfortunately, it is time to tighten them again.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice has told heads of state agencies to find ways to spend $100 million less than they had planned for the current fiscal year. Lagging revenue — nearly $30 million below estimates for the first three months of fiscal 2020 — is being blamed.
Shaving $100 million out of the $4.71 billion general revenue budget may not sound difficult. Consider the fact that about two-thirds of the budget is for fixed costs that cannot be reduced, and the chore becomes more painful, however.
After several tight budget years, much of the last one was a pleasant surprise. Revenue was much higher than expected, allowing Justice and legislators to loosen our belts and spend more than state officials have for some time. Pay raises for state employees, a little more money for road repairs and assorted other good things were made possible.
It is not as if the bottom dropped out of the economy during the past few months. However, state government is not bringing in enough money to cover the fiscal 2020 budget — so belts have to be tightened again.
State officials have blamed the revenue slowdown primarily on severance taxes. That is not the full story, however.
It is true that during the first three months of fiscal 2020, severance taxes brought in $26.4 million less than expected. But personal income tax collections were bad, too, at $21.5 million below projections for the first three months.
In other words, the problem may not be restricted to the natural gas and coal industries, the source of most severance tax revenue. A mild but general slowdown in the state’s economy may have begun.
We hope not. But prudence dictates that unless the state’s economy kicks into high gear later this year, Justice and legislators should begin planning for next year’s budget at $4.61 billion — this year’s original budget minus the $100 million cut — and work downward from there.
The Charleston Gazette-Mail on former Roman Catholic bishop Michael Bransfield, who is accused of diverting money from Wheeling Hospital to his own fund:
Former bishop Michael Bransfield, the head of the Catholic Church in West Virginia for 13 years, was “very concerned about his legacy.” Those are the words of Mark Phillips, the former chief of staff of what was Wheeling Jesuit University, provided in a written response to questions from The Washington Post. Surely by now, Bransfield, the former leader of the Wheeling-Charleston Diocese, has grown used to disappointment on that front.
Already accused of sexually assaulting young seminarians and spending millions of church dollars on a lavish lifestyle, it appears Bransfield diverted money from Wheeling Hospital into a slush fund to dole out checks for expensive gifts, according to The Post. He reportedly wrote checks for a total of $29,000 to help a powerful cardinal in Rome renovate living quarters Bransfield reportedly thought were too austere. How generous.
With hospital money, Bransfield — who headed up the board and considered it “my hospital,” according to The Post — established the Bishop’s Fund, intended, at least on tax documents, as a way to “provide charitable care to the people of the diocese.”
Instead, he spent millions on vanity projects within the state. When he wanted to send money elsewhere, which would have violated tax laws and possibly draw the ire of the Internal Revenue Service, he simply used the account as a holding area for money that would eventually be transferred to the diocese. Bransfield was able to then direct the money wherever he wanted, using vague descriptions on financial records, to avoid legal entanglements.
Hospital board members who talked to The Post say they don’t recall ever authorizing transferring large sums of money into the Bishop’s Fund. Records, such as meeting minutes, from board meetings where such an action would have been approved do not exist.
Accusations of abuse at this stage, although disgusting and disturbing, are a matter for civil courts. Spending millions on private jet travel and luxurious accommodations while preaching humility and leading the church in an impoverished state is an outrage, but Bransfield was allowed to do it. The penalty from the Catholic Church as a result of its own investigation into Bransfield’s conduct was to essentially de-frock him, although that decision came after he was already technically retired.
But Bransfield could be in an entirely different type of very real trouble this time. Wheeling Hospital gets a lot of its money from Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. Diverting those federal dollars into another fund for any other purpose is, quite literally, a crime.
Whether he’s prosecuted or not, Bransfield can rest assured that his precious legacy has been shattered, and the pieces are ground to dust with each new report that surfaces.
The Parkersburg News and Sentinel on an ingenious idea to promote tourism to West Virginia:
On a national stage, West Virginia does not always enjoy the greatest of reputations. Most people, if they understand there is a West Virginia at all, have a general idea of us as backward, poor, maybe drug-addicted and living in a land like something out of “Deliverance.” (That was Georgia, people. Georgia.)
That is what makes the latest effort from Chelsea Ruby’s state tourism office so fun. In partnership with an advertising agency, Ruby and Co. got more than 500 people to apply for a mystery trip from the Washington, D.C., area. There was a pixelated ad campaign that obscured the destination of the mystery trip. Once the pool was whittled down to 33 participants, they were told to meet at 7 a.m. to board a bus, wearing layered clothes and hiking boots, and be ready for a mystery adventure.
Approximately three hours later, they arrived in the Canaan Valley/Blackwater Falls area at the peak of fall foliage season. They got to spend 48 hours in Almost Heaven, climbing at Seneca Rocks, exploring Davis and Thomas, riding horses in Canaan Valley . and of course eating. Then, poor souls, they had to go home.
“My impressions of West Virginia have certainly changed,” one participant said. “There’s so much this state has to offer in terms of food, culture and exploring nature. If there’s anything on your bucket list for vacation, West Virginia will definitely deliver.”
Even better, “I can’t wait to go home and tell friends and family that this is where we need to go next,” said another.
Meanwhile, the pixelated ads back in D.C. had switched to reveal the name of the destination, and show it in its fall finest.
It may seem as though 33 people is not a lot, but they can spread the word quickly. And the experiment is another in a long line of creative ideas out of the tourism office to help the Mountain State capitalize on the best if has to offer.
Kudos to Ruby and her team on another fun, and apparently successful, idea.