By Mannix Porterfield
Restrictions must be in place on how accumulated money may be spent, and any “future fund” should be decided by West Virginia voters, says Senate Agriculture Chairman Ron Miller.
Otherwise, Miller says he agrees with Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, that without limits, the proposed account could turn into a political slush fund, exploited by politicians several years from now, once current leaders are no longer in power.
Miller was among a contingent of West Virginia lawmakers who met last Thursday with North Dakota leaders to learn how that state devised its “legacy fund,” one that quickly built up a $1 billion account.
Depending on how West Virginia’s fund is created, Miller said money could be targeted for specific projects.
“It would certainly put the restrictions on using it and getting to it,” Miller, D-Greenbrier, said Monday.
“That’s basically what they did in North Dakota. They didn’t say how it was to be used, but specified when it could be tapped into.”
Without built-in limitations, Miller warned, such a fund could be exploited for personal political gain.
“It could be raided very easily if you don’t do it that way,” he said. “If you put it in a constitutional amendment with the voters, you can’t just come in willy-nilly and take the funds. They would have to follow what the code says.
“You’ve got to make it where it’s tough to get to. It’s kind of a ‘tough love’ kind of thing. You have to put the money aside and you know it’s there. And you know there’s an amount there. There’s always things we could find to spend it on. You just have to leave it alone.”
In reality, North Dakota manages about half a dozen special funds, although none approaches the size of the “legacy fund,” the West Virginians learned.
“We’re never going to be the size of the legacy fund,” Miller said.
Money has gushed into North Dakota’s fund from the Bakken Oil Fields, the second largest producer in the nation — an enterprise that stands as one of that region’s major economic engine.
“I was shocked to find an average employee at a McDonald’s in Bakken gets $15 an hour,” Miller said.
Given the bi-partisan makeup of the delegation making the North Dakota trip — several in the group are conservative Republicans — Miller is confident the “future fund” proposal will fare better in the 2014 legislative session. This year, it never hit the Senate floor for a vote.
Miller doubts that any monies acquired for the fund would be tailored specifically for agriculture programs, but could be assigned to the other part of his Senate committee — rural development.
“I do think they could be used strongly in rural development,” he said.
North Dakota lost miserably on its first try with the voters, with the legacy fund crushed in a lopsided vote, largely out of concern it would have hurt education. The second time out, the fund was approved by a nearly identical margin, and this time, the main opposition came from farmers.
Miller felt right at home when his plane touched down at the North Dakota airport.
“I loved flying into Bismarck,” he said.
“It’s the only airport besides Greenbrier Valley that I flew in that had round hay bales sitting next to the runway.”