Today, West Virginia lawmakers begin their first full day of the 2014 legislative session, and hunt for $33 million in budget cuts Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin says will be necessary to meet a growing decrease in tax collections.
In addition, some Democrats also hope to do something they refused to do for many years – take on the state attorney general’s office.
For 20 years while Darrell McGraw was West Virginia’s attorney general, Democrats in the Legislature did nothing about his abuses, wasting millions of dollars in taxpayers’ money and engaging in conflicts of interest.
Now, suddenly, some lawmakers have “gotten religion” in terms of reining in the attorney general.
We would not begin to suggest the Democrats’ interest in the office is because a Republican, Patrick Morrisey, now holds the post. Morrisey defeated McGraw in the 2012 election.
However, better late than never. Enacting some restraints on the attorney general, no matter who and of which party holds the office, is a good thing – providing they are intended as an improvement, not just a partisan assault on Morrisey.
A primary target is conflicts of interest. Both Morrisey and his wife have worked for drug companies, and the attorney general’s office is suing two of them. Morrisey already has removed himself from involvement in both cases, handing them off to his chief deputy.
Some legislators say that is not enough. They want a law requiring that when such conflicts occur, the cases must be assigned to private lawyers outside the attorney general’s office.
That may not be a bad idea – though clearly, there still would be room for conflicts.
McGraw was infamous for using the proceeds of lawsuit settlements in his own office, not turning the money over to the state treasury. Early in his term, Morrisey said he would refrain from that practice.
House of Delegates Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison, who proposed the legislation, and some other legislators want a law requiring that any funds received from lawsuits must be paid into the state general revenue fund. Providing the attorney general is allowed to retain enough money to cover the costs of such lawsuits, that, too, is a good idea.
Since this has been something Republicans have proposed for years, but opposed by the Democratic leadership, Morrisey probably views the proposals as partisan assaults on him. He may well be right, especially in light of the abuses legislators tolerated from McGraw for two decades.
Morrisey also may wonder if legislators plan to set similar curbs on themselves regarding conflicts of interest. Some still maintain involvement on issues in which they have personal interests.
Still, providing enactment of Miley’s package does not hamper the attorney general in doing his job, the restraints may be a good idea. One never knows who will serve as attorney general in the future, after all.