Future Fund: Great idea, but…

Most West Virginians have had the importance of putting some of our earnings into savings accounts drilled into our heads. If we wanted that new bicycle, mom and dad said, we needed to save up for it. As adults, we know the best way to get that new car we’ve been wanting is to save enough money for a down payment.

Then life gets in the way. One month we use the savings account money for new clothes. The next, it’s a new flat-screen television. On and on it goes until one day we notice our savings accounts hold, oh, 75 cents.

That syndrome is why state Senate President Jeff Kessler has gotten nowhere with his Future Fund idea.

Kessler, D-Marshall, was asked about the plan during a panel discussion at the West Virginia Press Association convention. On the panel with Kessler were House of Delegates Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison; House of Delegates Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha; and state Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam.

All three men – the biggest “guns” in the Legislature – agreed with Kessler than a Future Fund would be a great thing for West Virginia.

Then the word “but” began to dominate their talk. That’s why Kessler, who began discussing a Future Fund three years ago, hasn’t gotten any traction for the idea.

Briefly, this is what he wants to do: Kessler believes collections in the natural gas severance tax are going to grow dramatically. At some point when revenue from that source reaches a certain point each year – with what that level should be one of the items of debate – some or all of the excess would be put aside in the Future Fund.

The money could not be touched for any reason for several years. Then, however, the state could use it to pay for all those nice things we can’t afford now. Things like tax breaks to bring job-creating businesses to West Virginia, economic development projects such as roads, or perhaps public education initiatives.

West Virginia already has a “rainy day” fund. Containing around $1 billion, it’s one of the healthiest reserve funds in the nation. But the account (two separate ones, actually) is intended for use only in emergencies, such as fiscal crises or natural disasters.

Kessler’s Future Fund would be different. In essence, it would give West Virginians a pool of money we could use to take advantage of opportunities for progress. The possibilities are limitless.

Notice, please, that Kessler isn’t talking about increasing gas severance tax rates. Again, he thinks natural growth in revenue will give us a substantial amount of money to put away for the future.

But state government needs more money now, say those reluctant to sign on to the Kessler plan. There’s an estimate that to maintain existing roads and bridges properly, we need an additional $500 million a year. The cost of Medicaid will continue soaring. A $300 million gap is expected in the state budget for the year beginning next July 1. Gambling and coal severance tax revenue is decreasing.

You get the picture. It’s a great idea – but Kessler seems to be the only state leader who thinks we ought to just do it.

Kessler and a small group of other legislators will be traveling to North Dakota, to learn more about a sort of Future Fund in that state. Within just four years after establishing its fund, North Dakota has put away $1.3 billion. Kessler and his fellow lawmakers want to know more about how that was accomplished – and, probably, about plans for using the money.

Knowledge gained during the visit may answer some of the questions Kessler’s fellow lawmakers have about a Future Fund. But here’s the bottom line: A Future Fund may be the only way West Virginia ever can save up enough money to bring real progress to our state.

And here’s the kicker: We’ve already done something much like it with the Rainy Day funds. Now that we’ve planned ahead for emergencies, why not pave the way for progress?

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and the Wheeling News-Register. He can be reached via e-mail at myer@theintelligencer.net