The West Virginia Legislature has the constitutional authority and bears the responsibility for appropriating state funds.  Even the Governor, who wields considerable executive power, must get approval from the House and Senate for the budget.

So it is perplexing then that Governor Jim Justice would veto HB 4009.  The bill, which passed both the House and Senate, provided that the money recovered through consumer protection lawsuits by the Attorney General’s office must be deposited in the General Fund for distribution by the Legislature.

Republicans pushed the bill—although it had some bi-partisan support—in response to how former Democratic Attorney General Darrell McGraw used some of those funds for pet projects and self-promotion.

The legislation was not punitive.  It allowed the Attorney General to keep up to $7 million from settlement money annually “for the direct and indirect administrative, investigative, compliance, enforcement, or litigation costs and services incurred for consumer protection purposes.”

That’s a substantial amount from which the AG could fund litigation that is often time-consuming and expensive.  Still, current Attorney General Patrick Morrisey fought the bill behind the scenes, arguing that it was ill-conceived and problematic for the cases he pursues.

However, the Attorney General, as the state’s chief legal counsel, represents the interests of the state, not his own office. The state is the Attorney General’s client and therefore entitled to whatever gains come from litigation.

Meanwhile, Justice in his veto message posited oddly specific hypothetical situations where he thought it would be better to have settlement money stay with the AG rather than be deposited in the General Fund.  In one scenario, the Governor asked what if the state had to sue a contractor for incomplete work on the roof of a government building and then had to ask the Legislature to appropriate the damages back to the agency.

I suppose you can “what if” just about legislation to a point of no return.  However, the state constitution is not subject to whims based on perceived or predicted inconveniences.

Article VI, subsection 51(1) assigns authority for appropriating state funds to the Legislature.  “Every appropriation bill shall be either a budget bill, or a supplementary appropriation bill.” Nowhere else in the Constitution is the power to appropriate state funds assigned to another part of government.

This is the second year in a row a legitimate attempt to codify how settlement funds are to be properly appropriated has failed. Last year, the bill passed the House, but died in the Senate, and now this year the bill made it through both chambers, but was vetoed by the Governor.

Good government should not be this difficult.

 

 

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