How much cash is hidden?

Good marriages require transparency about everything, but some husbands and wives keep a little secret for 11 months of the year. We squirrel away spare cash, a little at a time. Then, come December, we have enough money to buy our spouses nice Christmas presents.

It’s done at the state Capitol Complex in Charleston, too. Except there’s never any Christmas present.

For a few weeks, Gov. Jim Justice had been telling legislators and his fellow West Virginians that to pay all our bills during the current fiscal year, we’d have to take $123 million out of the emergency Rainy Day fund.

No one thought that was a good idea, but no one had come up with an alternative.

Then, Justice revealed he’d come up with $120 million to handle nearly all of this year’s shortfall. His accountants had been combing through the various state funds and found that much money in various places.

About half of it is out of special revenue accounts. The remainder is in money that had been appropriated but apparently wasn’t needed for the original purpose.

In other words, state agencies were sitting on $120 million they didn’t really need for the current year.

It’s not uncommon at any level of government. For example, many municipalities do it on an official basis when they include contingency funds in their budgets. The money is not earmarked for specific purposes, but is included just in case something unforeseen comes up.

There are contingency funds in the state budget, too — but that’s not what Justice is talking about. Again, the money his accountants found was funding that had been earmarked, but wasn’t needed.

What would have happened to that cash at the end of the fiscal year on June 30, had the governor not suggested it be used to make ends meet?

It might have been declared as a “surplus” to be carried over to next year.

It might have continued to sit in agencies’ accounts, with no one except a few bureaucrats the wiser.

Almost undoubtedly, some of it would have fallen into the “spend it or lose it” category. Many who work in government at all levels know about that.

During the last couple of months of a fiscal year, their supervisors sometimes go to them and ask, “Hey, anything you need to buy for your office? We have some unencumbered money left in our account and unless we spend it, we’ll lose it.”

Spending sprees follow, often for things not really essential to an agency’s mission.

“Spend it or lose it” has another insidious effect. Before a fiscal year begins, agency heads are asked how much money they will need for the upcoming 12-month period. Almost always, they say they need more.

If they haven’t used every dollar they received for the current year — either by spending it or finding a way to hide it in some obscure account — they’re not going to get more next year. They know that.

And you wonder why the cost of government always seems to increase from year to year?

Good for Justice for understanding the fiscal games so many bureaucrats play and having accountants uncover the $120 million.

But how much more is there, just sitting around in Charleston?

And, to switch gears a bit, how many more cars and trucks aren’t really needed by state government?

During just two months in office, the governor and his aides have found scores of vehicles state agencies — including his office, by the way — don’t really need. Eliminating them will save millions of dollars.

How much other equipment, ranging from computer software licenses to airplanes, isn’t essential?

Finding out will be like pulling teeth. It won’t happen in time to affect work Justice and legislators are doing on the fiscal 2018 budget. But the project should be pursued. I don’t think many Mountain State residents would object to a Christmas present in, say, August.

Mike Myer can be reached at mmyer@theintelligencer.net.

COMMENTS