CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — One of West Virginia’s leading economic experts understands why legislators in Charleston can’t focus on big picture economic and financial reform.
“Honestly, our government leaders can’t be thinking too big picture,” John Deskins, WVU Associate Professor of Economics and Director of the University’s Bureau of Business & Economic Research said. “They can’t be thinking too long-term because we have such a short term crisis occupying all of their time.”
Deskins, a guest recently on “The Gary Bowden Show” on the AJR News Network, suggested that big reforms in government are possible–but not in an economic climate where crafting a budget and filling budget deficits becomes a yearly exercise in trench warfare.
“Next year, I would really really urge our leaders to step back and think about a major overhaul of the way that our government is structured in West Virginia,” he said.
One of his suggestions: think about restructuring how local governments are established and coordinated.
“Counties were designed in the eastern United States so that somebody could go from their home to the county seat and back in one day on horse back,” Deskins said. “That’s why counties are the size that they are, generally speaking.”
“That’s never changed. We haven’t reconsidered whether county definitions make sense now that we have cars and now that we have dramatically better roads and now that we have much better telecommunications technology.”
With yearly budget shortfalls due to declining coal severance tax revenue, Deskins said a restructuring could help eliminate inefficiencies that exist under the current system–saving money in broad terms. But he’s not advocating, at least not yet, for reshaping county lines–something that hasn’t happened in at least a century.
“The way that we’ve set up our state government, our local government, our regional government units, that hasn’t changed hardly any in decades and decades,” he said. “At the same time, our population has shifted. Our technology has changed. Our economy has changed. Our government structure has not changed to keep up with population shifts and technological shifts.”
The most recent available U.S. Census data indicated 47 of 55 West Virginia counties lost population in 2016. Monongalia County, one of five West Virginia counties with a growth of more than 20 in population, serves as one of Deskins’s prime examples for governmental consolidation.
“In Monongalia County we have the county government, the Westover government, the Star City government, the Granville Government, and the Morgantown government itself,” he said. “We have five government units in what is unquestionably one economy, one population center.”
Deskins said this isn’t an issue to be undertaken without thorough review. Rather than shooting first and asking questions later, he said the Legislature should commission a study for review.
“Those government units evolved when that population center was much smaller, much more fragmented,” he said. “It hasn’t changed as the population has grown dramatically and the economy has converged to some extent.”
Deskins said industries have thrived, collapsed, and reinvented themselves for decades in West Virginia. And with technological advances putting information at the fingertips of millions, many of those efficiency changes don’t reconcile with Deskins’s chief concerns about the number of muncipal governments.
For example, he said the Legislature could look at cities like Nashville, Louisville, Charlotte, and Indianapolis for guidance on consolidation of government.
His department is already studying it, in fact. Though he doesn’t anticipate coming out with any policy recommendations, he said there should at least be a road map available for legislators if they decided to take a hard look at governmental consolidation in the future.