West Virginia Delegate Larry D. Kump's testimony at the "Blue Ribbon Commission" public hearing regarding taxation for highways and bridges, held on Thursday, July 11th, 2013, at the Comfort Suites in Kearneysville (unexpectedly moved from theHoliday Inn in Martinsburg):
Here we go again!
After years of legislative trench warfare, and nipping right on the heels of at long last abolishing West Virginia's cruel and regressive grocery tax, it truly is troubling that one of the first agenda issues of our government leadership is to parade a smorgasbord menu of ways for more taxing and spending, followed by an anticipated special session of the Legislature, to consider putting tax increases into law.
It is true that different states use somewhat different mechanisms to fund roads and bridges. It also is true that West Virginia is among a minority of states that manages both state and county roads and bridges. However, even with Maryland's increase of their gasoline taxes, just days ago, West Virginia still has the region's highest gasoline taxes, bar none.
Another fact is that there is a growing consensus realization that West Virginia is challenged with a need for better maintenance of roads and bridges, as well as for improvements to our transportation network.
In addition to the need for road improvements in just about every local area throughout West Virginia, two specific examples that immediately come to mind for me is the long delayed completion of "Corridor H", as well as improvements to Route 9 West of Martinsburg. In point of fact, I recently observed one bumper sticker, that proclaimed "I pray every day. I drive Route 9!".
West Virginia's road wish list is a long one.
However, let's not rush to surrender to an anxious clamor for increased taxes and spending, while merely giving lip service to vigorously investigating ways to reform our current practices and procedures.
All of this reminds me of me and my sister when we were children. Before every Christmas, we eagerly would go through the "Wish Book" (Sears & Roebuck catalog), circling all the toys we wanted for Christmas. Even so, we children were well aware that Mom and Dad couldn't afford to grant all of our childish wishes out of their almost empty pockets.
That also reminds me of a modern fable, illustrative of the perils of large bureaucracies, that was recently told to me by my friend and colleague, Delegate Marty Gearheart of Bluefield, WV.
As the story goes, there were two highway employees working on a median strip. One was digging holes. The other was following him and filling those holes back up. When asked what they were doing, both replied that they were dutifully doing their jobs, but admitted that there used to be three of them. One dug the hole, one planted the tree, and the other filled in the hole around the tree, but the tree planter was assigned to another job and nobody told the other two to do anything differently.
How does all of this apply to all of us taxpayers here and now?
If we are to maximize the efficient use of our highway tax dollars, now is the time to first consider and do things better, much better.
One good place to start is to ask rank and file highway employees, the ones who know most about field operations, for their analysis and suggestions, and to receive these ideas without filtering this honest feedback through various levels of management. Taxpayers also should be encouraged to chime in with their suggestions. Hopefully, this hearing today will only be the first step in an expanded and much intensified process to do just that.
Another recommendation is to begin a comprehensive and truly independent review of current West Virginia (and even federal) laws, procedures, and staffing by a team of accomplished management analysts. Their assignment should be to come up with a matrix of what is absolutely necessary for reasonably safe highway transportation, as opposed to what would be nice but just too much Champagne for our beer budget.
To do these things only would be prudent and practical, but, in closing, let me mention just three more of a multitude of suggestions that merit serious review.
Our current practice of government mandated and inflated salaries for private contractors' employees costs Mountaineers mountains of wasted tax money, not only for roads and bridges, but also for other public projects, such as libraries and such.
Also, the State of West Virginia is forfeiting a big bundle of revenue from far too many West Virginia residents, who drive vehicles with out of state tags and use out of state drivers' licenses. Not only does the West Virginia Department of Transportation lose lots of revenue from these unpaid tags and licenses under already established law, but our other government agencies also lose loads of personal property tax revenue. Accordingly, it would be helpful if the West Virginia Department of Transportation helped coordinate information about these scofflaws with our local county sheriffs and assessors, for follow-up action by them. For those who doubt that this is a problem in our area, I invite you to just stop by one of our local elementary schools during school days and count the out of state license tags of parents dropping off and picking up their kids from school.
Finally, with the boom of Marcellus shale and oil revenue in West Virginia, let's consider dedicating a fixed percentage of that new state income to our roads and bridges, and, although ithis does not relate to our roads and bridges, let's also investigate the Alaska example of returning a fixed percentage of this income directly to taxpayers.
You know, I've never much liked that West Virgina slogan of "Open for Business". To me, it sent the message, "Open for Business...as Usual".
West Virginia's many years of doing business as usual in regard to our system of taxes and regulation is what puts us in competition with Mississippi for the dubious distiction of the State with the poorest people in the nation.
We deserve better, much better.