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MAP TO PROSPERITY: Government's role debated in Washington DC, WV

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Government's proper size and role is hotly debated in Washington, D.C. It remains controversial at the state level, too.

As outlined in the West Virginia Constitution — written when most residents farmed for a living — state government was viewed primarily as a custodian, concerned with a few essentials, such as courts, education and roads.

The state continues to focus on those critical services and each has grown.

The court system, for example, now includes the state Supreme Court, circuit courts, magistrate courts, family courts, treatment courts (adult and juvenile drug courts, an adult re-entry court as well as an adult mental health court), a mass litigation panel and the newest addition: a Business Court Division.

Much of the growth in state government is the result of efforts to fill unmet needs. The state now owns and operates hospitals, railroads and television stations. It regulates insurance. It oversees professions ranging from accountants to veterinarians.

Also, from President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal to President John F. Kennedy's New Frontier and President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty, many federal programs have led to an increase in the size of state government.

Marybeth Beller, chair of the Department of Political Science at Marshall University, noted that under the U.S. Constitution, both the federal and state governments have roles in governing.

"In terms of fiscal federalism, as it impacts the state in organization and growth, we've got at least five streams I could immediately identify," Beller said. "One is highway dollars. As highway dollars become available from the federal government, they often come with strings."

Beller explained that since grants are not constitutional, the federal government can have whatever strings it wants, because it's money that does not have to be provided to the states.

"So some of our regulation comes with highway money," she said. "A couple of examples are seatbelt laws, speed limits and helmet usage. 

"There are all kinds of laws the states have adopted because the federal government has said they would withhold money in various categories if the states did not comply."

Medicaid, a federal health care program for the needy, is another example, she said.

"The federal government matches the states' money generally on a four-to-one ratio," Beller said. "The states have a great deal of leeway with what they can provide under their Medicaid policies."

Beller said West Virginia, for example, determines what the income eligibility is for Medicaid and determines what services it will provide. 

"An example that I find strange is our Medicaid program will pay to extract someone's tooth but it will not pay to fill that tooth or to put a cap on it," she said. "The reason I find this strange is that medically we know that if you have a hole in your mouth it opens you up to all kinds of illnesses and bacteria that get into your blood stream. 

"What we're actually doing is making people sicker, whereas if we would just fill or cap that tooth, a world of prevention could be taken care of."

Federal dollars also have a big impact on education because that money "comes with a world of regulation," Beller said.

Portland State University political science professor Richard Clucas highlighted the importance of state government in the book, "The Executive Branch of State Government." 

"State legislatures produce more laws than the U.S. Congress," he wrote. "State laws are essential because they constitute most of the rules governing criminal behavior in the nation and help shape such things as the character of our schools, the strength of the states' economies, the type of help that is provided to the needy, the quality of our roads, and the health of the environment."

Why West Virginia provides some of the services it offers can hardly be surprising. For example: The state, with a growing population of aging citizens, provides lots of services for seniors. 

As Jim Estep, president and chief executive officer of the West Virginia High Technology Consortium Foundation, observed, "When you have such a small population and it is older, your government tends to find itself self-configuring to administer to that older population because that's where the votes are."

The State Journal's Senior Staff Writer Jim Ross contributed to this story.