Recent editorials from West Virginia newspapers:
The Register-Herald, Bleckley, W.Va., on court rulings:
Back in “the old days,” government bodies could get away with a lot of questionable actions because they weren’t held accountable by the public they served.
Thankfully, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was passed, for the express purpose of providing full and complete information to all citizens about the workings of government and the acts of those who represent them.
It is part of the fundamental philosophy of our form of government that government is the servant of the people, and not the master of them.
FOIA is intended not just for the use of the news media. It gives everyone the right to request documents from all state, county and municipal officers, governing bodies, agencies, departments, boards and commissions, and any other bodies created or primarily funded by state or local authority, unless their enabling statute specifically exempts them from its provisions.
All it requires is “a reasonable fee for the costs of copying.”
And that has been officials’ “out” for providing such information.
Just last month, The Register-Herald requested a copy of a civil suit filed in Kanawha County Circuit Court. The clerk was happy to comply - if we paid $30 to have her fax it to us.
A reporter at another state newspaper was charged $175 by the same court for a copy of another suit that she was picking up in person.
Neither of those falls under the heading of “reasonable costs” in our thinking. Nor, we think, would it for almost any private citizen who makes similar requests.
Now comes the state Supreme Court making it even more difficult for FOIA to have any effectiveness.
The court ruled that government agencies can charge an hourly fee for the time it takes to find public documents - in addition to the copying fee.
Dissenting Justice Brent Benjamin wrote that this ruling is “a step backward” from the modern trend to make government more open and accessible.
The Herald-Dispatch, Huntington, W.Va., on water-safety rules:
West Virginia lawmakers spent many hours during the past winter’s session working on a new law that aims to prevent the kind of chemical leak in January that interrupted water service for several days in a nine-county area in and around Charleston.
Senate Bill 373 laid out the broad parameters of regulating above-ground chemical storage tanks. But there remains a long way to go before the new law goes into effect, including establishing specific rules that will eventually go back to the Legislature for consideration and possible approval.
Saying it realizes the importance of this legislation and its task ahead of fleshing out the law, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection is taking what it calls unusual steps to get interested parties involved from the ground up. That sounds like a good idea.
Toward that end, the agency is seeking input from “stakeholders” before the DEP even begins putting together its draft of rules. It sent a letter earlier this month to various industry and environmental groups asking them to put in writing by May 15 what they would like to see in the rules, which are supposed to address such issues as detailed tank-integrity standards, the cost of fees for permits and any systems that may be required to detect leaks in above-ground storage tanks.
The DEP is required to have the proposed regulations ready for the Legislature to review during its 2015 session, which begins in January.
That all appears much to accomplish during the remainder of the year. But we credit the DEP for inviting interested groups to provide their suggestions, concerns and opinions at the front end.
The one concern, however, is the time allowed toward the end of the process for the general public to study closely the proposed regulations and react.
The DEP should make sure members of the general public have adequate time to express their opinions on this all-important step aimed at protecting public water supplies.
The Journal, Martinsburg, W.Va., on legislators, Gov. Tomblin reconsidering Medicaid waiver:
A new health care study makes it clearer than ever that West Virginia policymakers are missing a good bet by not spending more on the Medicaid Aged and Disabled Waiver program.
Low-income senior citizens and disabled people who qualify for Medicaid can benefit from the program. About 7,000 Mountain State residents receive help through it to pay for in-home health care and assistance with daily living needs.
Without the waiver program, many of those people would have to go to nursing homes, where the cost to Medicaid would be much higher. State and federal funds put into the waiver program can save the state money.
A study released this month by the Genworth Financial firm shows the median hourly cost of home health aide services in West Virginia has increased by an annual rate of 3.8 percent during the past five years. The national rate was 1.3 percent.
During the same period, the median hourly rate for homemaker services increased at an annual rate of 3.6 percent in our state, according to Genworth. The national rate of increase was 1 percent.
At first glance, that might seem to be an argument against putting more money into the Medicaid waiver program. But wait.
Genworth analysts also found that the median cost of a private nursing home in West Virginia increased 5 percent annually. Expenses for nursing home care are increasing at a greater rate than for assistance of the type covered by the waiver program.
When state legislators went into session this January, some suggested the state budget for the fiscal year starting July 1 should include enough money to fund about 2,300 “slots” in the waiver program. That would have virtually eliminated the waiting list for it.
But among dozens of line-item vetoes Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin exercised on the budget was one slashing about $3.5 million from the Legislature’s proposal for the waiver program. As Tomblin noted, the amount he approved still provides enough increased funding to cover 335 new slots.
Legislators are set to meet again in May, for a special session. When they do, they and Tomblin should reconsider the waiver program, and restore at least some of the $3.5 million the governor cut.
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