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The Good In West Virginia’s Budget Dispute

I live in West Virginia where state government is embroiled in a budget battle.  Tax revenues have dropped substantially.  Through the regular legislative session and 12 days of a special session, the legislature could not agree on a combination of spending cuts, tax increases and/or the use of ‘rainy day’ account funds capable of gaining a majority of both houses.  Finally, on Friday, a budget passed both houses.  It’s now on the governor’s desk.  Most anticipate a veto.

Partisan positioning based on ideology has been prevalent.  For the first time in my memory, the legislature is reflective of a two-party system and the ideological divisions that come with that distinction are still somewhat of a novelty here.  In the past, whenever revenues dropped off, the only responses likely to be considered involved revenue enhancement, i.e., tax increases.  Now, a Republican disdain for tax increases is running head long into the unfortunate and nearly universal political desire to not cut spending.  That struggle is largely new to West Virginia and the legislature has floundered in the effort to find majority support for any combination of the available approaches to deal with the reality of falling revenue.

Partisan squabbling based on achieving political advantage in the November general election has been rampant; who is ‘at fault’ for the delay in achieving a budget…who should ‘have seen this coming’ and planned for it better…who doesn’t care about the state employees who may see their pay cut or might be subjected to a furlough…who doesn’t care about education…who wants to single out smokers for taxation, etc…

Social media has been very active with budget discussions and debates among the politically inclined and those who may not typically be policitally interested but are compelled to the debate in an effort to protect their personal ox from being gored.  Local newspapers and websites have been laser focused on the daily machinations, reporting every suggested resolution and each inevitable opposing response.

Though I have no data, I’m certain delegates and senators are hearing from their constituents in a loud and clear fashion exactly how they feel about various aspects of the budget dispute.  And no doubt, those delegates and senators are feeling the electoral pressure that flows naturally from an interested and attentive citizenry.

And it’s all been a good thing.  That’s not to say that each suggested resolution, each response in opposition, each transparent effort at political posturing and every hateful private debate made public by virtue of the internet has been a good.  But what has been a very, very good thing is the process – the forest, if not each of the trees.

I’m happy for the opportunity to finally live in a state where political solutions are not forgone conclusions and therefore not subjected to public debate.  I’m happy to finally live in a state where the push/pull between balancing revenue and spending is a real contest for public opinion.  But most of all, I’m happy for the reminder which witnessing this process provides as to what self-government can and should be.

The United States was founded in part on federalism.  The federal government and the states were to share sovereignty.  The federal government was to have very limited and specified powers.  James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 45 that “The powers delegated by the Constitution to the Federal Government, are few and defined.  Those which are to remain in the State Governments are numerous and indefinite.” 

 There were a number of reasons for this approach.  Practically, the states could not be expected to ratify a Constitution that didn’t preserve for them broad powers.  Individuals generally identified the state in which they resided as where their allegiance lay.  Many were skeptical at the notion of granting the central government any additional authority beyond those anemic powers specified in the Articles Of Confederation.  Simply, the Constitution could not have been ratified were it not for the fact that the states retained substantial sovereignty.

Fundamentally, the framers recognized that there were only certain functions the central government could perform effectively.  They recognized that effective self-government implies local government and that representative government requires the people to have access to their representatives with respect to the issues that matter most in their lives.  The more local the government, the more likely the public to remain engaged, the more likely self-government would truly be ‘self-government’.  As Madison wrote, “The powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects, which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties and properties of the people; and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the State.

Since the 1930’s the Federal Government has acquisitioned the constitutional authority of the states through many mechanisms.  The Supreme Court has regularly and intentionally misinterpreted the Constitution in order to enable the expansion of federal power.  More directly, the Federal Government has ‘purchased’ state sovereignty by returning taxed money to the states, but only with strings attached – strings which force the states to act or refrain from acting as directed by the Federal Government.  The result is an ever more powerful Federal Government acting as puppeteer, manipulating the states to yield their constitutional sovereignty in exchange for a return of moneys previously funneled from the people to Washington via the taxing authority.

That centralization of power in Washington is rendering Madison’s vision of the states legislating in all matters most important to the people a broken promise.  And as power is moved from state capitals to Washington, it’s only natural that the people become disengaged politically.  As I previously wrote here, “Centralization of everything from healthcare to public education to speed limits on local highways slowly engenders a defeatist attitude in the mind of the civically interested individual.  Her political voice, once easily heard on a local or even state level, has become a mere whisper, taking a back seat to the special interests groups and cronies who have the financial wherewithal to amplify their voices loud enough to be heard in Washington.  The ever growing and seemingly all powerful regulatory and administrative state is even worse, often leaving individuals with feelings of helplessness and inevitability.”

The West Virginia budget debate, though difficult, fraught with political infighting and subject to varying opposing perspectives, is representative government in America as it was intended to be.  Concerned citizens can be heard and can participate.  Politicians hear the voices of their constituents and expect to be held to account.  Regardless of the outcome of the debate, West Virginians should take satisfaction in the fact that their voices and their votes matter to a degree which cannot be replicated at the federal level where individual citizens are dissuaded by design from becoming involved and, when they do decide to speak, find it extraordinarily difficult to be heard.  Citizens of every state should keep this in mind when confronted with Washington’s next, inevitable effort to usurp constitutional sovereignty from the state capitals to Washington D.C.

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