State government accountability an ongoing challenge - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

State government accountability an ongoing challenge

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Is state government doing some things right and some things wrong? Is it too large or too small?

"We don't know because we don't hold government accountable," said Robin Capehart, former secretary of the state Department of Tax and Revenue. Capehart is now president of West Liberty University.

Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, said compared to other states, it is hard to get information about small-area tax collections and other information from West Virginia state government. That makes it hard for the public to decide whether tax credits for industry work or whether the Promise scholarship program is accomplishing what it was supposed to.

"Is it working? We have no idea," Boettner said. "It's almost like we won't want to know."

Alas, there are some attempts at accountability. The Legislative Auditor's Performance Evaluation and Research Division is an example.

The mission of the division is "to provide useful information to the Legislature for legislative decision-making and hold state government accountable for its performance …"

The division has produced 550 reports since it was established in 1994. It issued 13 reports in 2013.

Some reports are scathing. Several reports issued last year found major problems within the Department of Health and Human Resources' Bureau for Children and Families. 

One example: A report issued in November found that the bureau cannot determine which rehabilitative facilities and programs have been successful in curbing undesirable behavior, can't determine if interventions have prevented future court involvement and can't determine total program costs.

In response, the bureau said it concurred with the auditor's findings and said it has taken immediate action to begin implementing the recommendations.

Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Karen Bowling followed up in December when she told legislators that she plans to re-organize the agency into three divisions and appoint a deputy secretary for each one. A new deputy of human services would oversee the Bureau for Children and Families and the Bureau for Child Support Enforcement, she said.

Although the reports issued by the Legislative Auditor's division are an impressive body of work, they don't cover all of state government. In fact, some programs and policies never get evaluated.

For example, five years ago the Legislature set a goal that by 2020, academic achievement of students would exceed international and national averages of scores on three widely recognized tests. But that has not happened.

"This goes back to holding policymakers accountable," State Sen. Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, said at the 2012 Business Summit. "We don't do that. No report card is done to gauge the Legislature on achieving some of these goals."

Another example is the $224.8 million doled out by the 2004 Economic Development Grant Committee. Then-Gov. Bob Wise urged the Legislature to create the committee, which picked 48 projects throughout the state to fund with money from the lottery.

Winning projects included Charleston's minor league baseball park, Huntington's Pullman Square and the Fort Henry Business and Industrial Center in Ohio County, which became known as The Highlands.

Wise called the grant program "the largest economic stimulus package the state has ever seen." He predicted it would create thousands of jobs. Project backers also promised eye-popping jobs numbers when they appeared before the committee.

But two years after the program's creation, an informal survey showed that fewer than 1,000 full-time jobs had been created.

Arguments could be made that the ballpark helped revitalize Charleston's East End, along with Huntington's Pullman Square, which put more storefronts in the city's downtown, and The Highlands shifted shopping in the Upper Ohio Valley out of St. Clairsville, Ohio, and back to the Wheeling area, anchored by the massive Cabela's store and distribution center.

However, a final analysis was never done of the number of jobs created and the program's economic impact. without such an analysis, the state is missing a key component to track which projects improved economies and communities and which projects will not. It is the repeated absence of feedback that leads the state toward what has been perceived as a "hit-and-miss investment strategy," that often appears to be driven by politics rather than economics.

Meanwhile, $19 million in annual lottery revenue is dedicated through 2024 to pay off the bonds issued to finance the projects.

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