December 9, 1933: W. Va. Legislation Authorizes the State to Assume County Debts

Supreme Court Chambers

On December 9, 1933, the Democrat-controlled West Virginia Legislature passed a bill authorizing the state to assume county debts for all outstanding school and road bonds. It was during the darkest days of the Great Depression. The previous year, a voter-approved constitutional amendment had limited the amount of property taxes that counties could collect. While the tax-limitation amendment helped farmers and homeowners, it also decimated local revenue collections. This new bill was intended to relieve counties of some of their burdens.

Immediately after the debt relief act was passed, however, Braxton County resident A. M. Berry filed suit, claiming the law violated the state constitution. In the three-to-two decision of Berry versus Fox, the West Virginia Supreme Court overturned the law. The justices pointed to an article in the West Virginia Constitution that prohibited the state from “assum[ing], or becom[ing] responsible for the debts or liabilities of any county, city, township, corporation, or person.”

The tax-limitation amendment and the Berry versus Fox ruling led to a sharp decline in funding for education, roads, and other public services for years to come.