Just the tip of the iceberg?
Wondering why the West Virginia Division of Highways doesn’t seem to have enough money to fill in more potholes? Perhaps you can blame technology.
Buried in Gov. Jim Justice’s report on state revenue collections for November (they continue to exceed expectations) was a disturbing report on the State Road Fund. It’s lagging badly behind projections on which spending were based.
Most attention on fiscal matters goes to the general revenue fund, but it is just part of the total state budget. A totally separate system, the State Road Fund, covers money for the DOH. For the fiscal year that began July 1, the fund is budgeted at $1.35 billion.
Much of that is federal funding, and that’s a problem. Justice’s report on revenue for November, five months into the fiscal year, contained these unsettling sentences: “Cumulative State Road Fund collections of $534.1 million were $95.2 million below estimate and 5.5% below prior year receipts. Federal reimbursements were $117.4 million below estimate due to a time lag associated with a recently implemented upgrade in technology.”
Bottom line: DOH operations for the fiscal year had been based on receiving $267 million in federal funds by the end of November. Actual receipts were only $149.6 million.
That’s quite a gap.
The good news was that State Road Fund revenue for the first five months of the fiscal year were substantially ahead of what had been projected. Income from vehicle registration, sales taxes and fuel taxes totaled $376 million, about $23.8 million more than estimates on which the budget was based.
So the State Road Fund is taking more out of our pockets to repair roads — but getting less from Washington.
Exactly what the “recently implemented upgrade in technology” consisted of was not explained in the governor’s report. But given state government’s record with both technology and handling federal funding, one wonders how much of that $117.4 million gap may never get to Charleston.
There is reason to worry. A recently released audit noted that federal highway aid to West Virginia dropped off drastically during fiscal 2018, which ended June 30. During that 12-month period, the state received $134 million less in road support from Washington than in the previous year.
Part of that was blamed on a change in federal policy that placed deadlines on states receiving money for specific projects. Once the deadlines pass, Washington won’t reimburse states.
That affected about $22.6 million in federal money last year. State legislators may want to ask the DOH why the deadlines were allowed to pass without state action seeking reimbursements.
Is all this the precursor to another scandal involving mismanagement in state government? We’ll see. But the fiasco regarding federal money for disaster victims in West Virginia may be just the tip of the iceberg.
Among the most upsetting aspects of the situation involving disaster relief funds is that delays in handling them at the state level were blamed in part on not having enough personnel to do the work — even though Washington had offered millions of dollars for West Virginia to hire more help and no one in Charleston saw fit to do that.
During the past five years, we’ve seen plenty of scandals involving the DOH. They have ranged from schemes by state employees to profit from sales of surplus equipment to those in which bidding for projects was rigged to steer money to companies, in exchange for payoffs. It is noteworthy that federal, not state, officials led the way in those investigations.
Outright corruption bad, of course. But what about its little brother — waste and inefficiency in the bureaucracy? Often, that costs taxpayers more in money and failure to repair highways than does criminal activity.
Let’s hope that $117.4 million in federal funds is received, eventually. Legislators should keep their eye on the situation, and not accept bureaucratic excuses if we lose all or part of the funding. That much money would fill in a lot of potholes.
Myer can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.