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Region enjoys bounty of the state budget digest

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

Whether the state budget digest is fair is still a matter of brisk debate. What's certain is Harrison County and the North Central region made quite a haul.

Harrison alone netted about $1.8 million. That's 8 percent of the approximately $24 million legislators directed state departments to spend in 2001-2002.

And that figure doesn't include line items in the regular budget, which sometimes designate a specific county project.

While a lawsuit recently questioned how digest funds are distributed, area legislators say they are unapologetic for bringing home as much as they can.

"It's from our tax dollars. It's not a gift from heaven," said Del. Ron Fragale, D-Harrison. "If we're (Harrison) in the top 10 of taxes paid, we should be in the top 10 of money received -- but not everybody agrees with this."

"Not everybody" would include former Cabell County Del. Arley Johnson. He was party to the lawsuit, which the state Supreme Court ruled on early this year. He is now a member of the Wise administration.

"There were just not enough hands on or eyes looking at the document and how the money was allocated," he said.

Johnson believed too much money was going to districts represented by powerful politicians. He also alleged the House leadership was using digest money to influence delegates' votes.

Changing times?

The Supreme Court ruling was vague -- justices said the digest was legal but urged legislators to make the process more fair and public.

Johnson and several area legislators said the process seemed to work better this year anyway.

Sen. Joe Minard, D-Harrison, said the Senate now divides its discretionary spending evenly among 17 districts.

Sen. Bill Sharpe, D-Lewis, was skeptical about how the House parcels out funds, however. That body sends requests to a single committee for distribution.

Fragale said this year's House appropriations were more equitable than in the past, a change he attributes to the lawsuit. He said almost everyone got something, although he would like to see the process scrutinized for several years.

A working model

There are elements of the budget digest Harrison County representatives hope will not change.

Minard refers to the digest process as legislators lobbying legislators.

"Harrison County is very fortunate that they have delegates and senators that work very much in concert," Minard said of one of the four counties he represents. "We're all from the same party. That is a big reason why Harrison County has been so successful."

Del. Frank "Chunki" Angotti, D-Harrison, said the team is especially lucky to have several people in good positions.

Sharpe and Del. Barbara Ann Warner, D-Harrison, are both on the joint conference committee that makes final decisions. Warner and Del. Sam Cann, D-Harrison, are on the House Finance Committee that makes recommendations for that body.

"We rely on her to push the requests through," Angotti said of Warner.

For her part, Warner said she is an ardent supporter of keeping Legislature-directed spending in the budget.

She said small communities like Harrison County's Pine Bluff would never get funding from the state without the digest. That community received $6,000 this year.

Roy Smith, West Milford mayor, said his 265-household community has benefited greatly, as well. Funds have been received for such projects as water tank upgrades and a playground.

Cann sees such appropriations as democratic.

"It's the only way that the people that we represent have some input," Cann said, "rather than letting a group of people who live basically in Charleston decide how the money should be spent."

Regional Editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1447 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com

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