West Virginia Gov-Elect Leading Low-Key Transition
By Stateline Staff
By all indications, West Virginia Gov-elect Bob Wise's transition is getting off to as slow a start as his campaign did.
Wise unseated Republican Gov. Cecil Underwood by a margin of less than 3 percentage points. Democrats and Republicans alike credited a last-minute campaign blitz by the venerable U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., for putting him over the top.
Since election night, Wise has been nearly invisible, holding a very limited number of public appearances and press conferences. His transition office shut down for most of Thanksgiving week.
Wise, 52, who gave up a safe seat in Congress to run for governor, has said he wants to take his time to assemble his administration. Since he won with only 50 percent of the vote, Wise said his top priority is to forge a strong working relationship with the legislative leadership. His fellow Democrats control the state house and senate by lopsided margins.
However, Wise isn't banking on is an easy 2001 session.
Projections are for a $60 million to $100 million shortfall in tax collections for the state's $2.6 billion general revenue budget. Besides that, Underwood nearly exhausted the state's civil contingency fund and road funds with a binge of grant-awarding and road paving expected to top the $40 million mark once final audits are available.
During the campaign, Wise accused Underwood of running, "the most expensive publicly financed campaign in state history." Wise has ruled out a tax increase to deal with the budget crunch, saying it isn't feasible, since West Virginians are already "taxed to the max."
Wise has, however, pledged to attempt to regulate and tax the video poker games that have proliferated in taverns and convenience stores around the state. Wise proposes replacing the estimated 10,000 "gray" video gambling machines with about 6,000 video machines that would be operated by the state Lottery. He would use a portion of the estimated $100 million in annual revenue from the legal machines to fund a college scholarship program for state students.
Bills very similar to Wise's proposal were defeated in the 1999 and 2000 legislative sessions.
Another immediate concern for the governor-elect is a policy in the Public Employees Insurance program that allows retirees to convert unused sick leave into months -- and in some cases, years -- of free health insurance.The overly generous benefit creates an unfunded liability that grows by $60 million a year, and threatens to drive the plan into insolvency within a matter of years if uncorrected.
During the 2000 session, state teachers' associations -- who were among Wise's earliest and strongest supporters -- scuttled a bill that would have eliminated the benefit for newly hired teachers and public employees. Wise has also pledged to increase teacher salaries, with the proviso, "Not in one year, but over several years."
Wise's key campaign issues were economic development and job creation. He said West Virginia had missed out on the robust economic growth the rest of the country had enjoyed over the past four years, and blamed Underwood for fumbling away much of the economic momentum achieved under past-Gov. Gaston Caperton.
A slowing national economy won't make Wise's job any easier, and critics contend the economic development plan he issued during the campaign differs little from current job-creation initiatives.
Wise, who was strongly backed by organized labor, will have to extend a hand to business leaders, many of whom backed Underwood. Throughout the campaign, Wise attacked Underwood for being too subservient to Big Coal and to the pharmaceutical industry.
Wise has said his narrow victory will be a blessing in disguise, since it means he will go into office knowing he must build consensus if he hopes to get anything accomplished.
"You don't run for this office because it's easy" Wise said in a post-election interview.