Voters in West Virginia have decided the fate of more than 120 amendments to the state’s Constitution at the ballot box starting in 1880. These issues have usually been decided at the regular general elections that occur every two years.
But there have been a few instances when special elections were scheduled to consider changes in the state Constitution and in 1973, there were no less than four suggested constitutional revisions decided as part of a special statewide election.
Several of those amendments have addressed the increasing need to provide a “system of state roads and highways,” beginning with the Good Roads Amendment of 1920 that voters endorsed by nearly a 2-1 majority. It called for a maximum bond issue of $50 million to provide “highways connecting at least the various county seats of the state.”
The state also has a variety of road user taxes specifically dedicated to financing this highway system. The best known is on each gallon of gasoline but there are also various fees charged to motorists for their drivers’ license, their title when purchasing a vehicle and the annual license plate renewals.
The advent of the Interstate Highway system provided 90 percent federal money to pay the lion’s share of these new roads in every state including West Virginia. And the subsequent Appalachian Developmental Highways system was a 70/30 federal-state matching program. But now this state’s system of roads that exceeds 36,000 miles has high cost maintenance needs and current road user tax revenues are not sufficient to do the job.
At the 2011 legislative session, the Legislature passed a bill to increase license plate fees and other road user taxes by about $40 million annually, but Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, running for election to the unexpired term as chief executive, quickly vetoed it to gain favor with voters.
Now eight of the 34 members of the state Senate have introduced a proposed amendment to the state Constitution to let voters decide whether or not they want to authorize a $1.5 billion bond issue to provide money for state highway maintenance and construction. But even those sponsors that include Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall; Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, and Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam, clearly are not pushing the idea this election year.
Senate Joint Resolution 11 has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee where Chairman Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, says no one has asked him to put this issue on the committee agenda. And Sen. Robert Beach, D-Monongalia, the lead sponsor, admits he didn’t expect the proposal to be considered this year but that he merely wants to start a dialogue about the issue.
Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, said she hopes as chair of the House Constitutional Revision Committee to schedule a public hearing on the issue the final week of this legislative session that might keep the idea alive for next year. Certainly the funding needs in the state’s highway system won’t disappear.