- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Recent editorials from West Virginia newspapers:

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Aug. 19

The Inter-Mountain, Elkins, West Virginia, on federal government providing funding to fight heroin use:

The federal government is providing additional funding to fight heroin use, a problem that has caused a surge in overdose deaths in West Virginia, we reported on the front page of Tuesday’s edition.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy announced a new initiative Monday called the Heroin Response Strategy, along with $2.5 million in federal dollars to fund it. The strategy will be enacted across five regional HIDTA programs.

The Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area - which includes West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia - will receive $400,000 for various drug use prevention initiatives.

Heroin is a growing problem in our state, to the point that the national media has been taking note.

According to an article in The Atlantic last fall, “heroin has taken root here (in the Mountain State) after authorities cracked down on unscrupulous doctors who were overprescribing pain meds, sending addicts searching elsewhere for a similar high. In West Virginia, heroin-overdose deaths have tripled over the past five years, while prescription-painkiller deaths have dipped slightly.”

Another article from last fall, this one online at The Huffington Post, noted, “A big switch happened around the turn of the century: More Americans began dying from drug use than from drinking. A large part of the problem has been the rise of painkillers and heroin” in states including West Virginia.

Unfortunately, the Mountain State recently topped a poll listing the most drug-addled states.

According to The Washington Post, “a new study from Gallup finds that among the states, the use of ‘mood-altering drugs’ is highest in West Virginia.”

The article, published in April, states, “According to the survey, 28.1 percent of West Virginians said they altered their mood with drugs almost every day, the highest percentage of any state. They were followed by Rhode Island, Kentucky, Alabama and Louisiana. Six of the top 10 drug use states are in the South. At the other end of the spectrum, Alaska had the lowest rate of frequent use at 13.5 percent, followed by Wyoming, California, Illinois and North Dakota.

“Nationally, 18.9 percent of Americans say they take drugs to relax almost every day, while 62.2 percent say they never do.”

No state wants to be tops in the nation in “getting high” - it says bad things about residents’ lifestyles, mindsets and worker productivity. It makes people think, “Gee, that must be a terrible state to live in, if so many people have to get high every single day.” But that’s what West Virginia has been saddled with through the results of the Gallup study.

Here’s hoping the increased federal aid can make a positive impact in stemming the tide of heroin use in the Mountain State.

Online:

https://www.intermountain.com

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Aug. 19

The Journal, Martinsburg, West Virginia on the protection of individual liberties:

Many West Virginians are fiercely protective of our individual liberties, with freedom of speech rightly at the top of most lists. No one is going to tell us what we can and cannot think and say.

Earlier this year the Legislature enacted what has come to be known as “the trinkets law” to prevent local and state officeholders from using public money to buy small gifts such as refrigerator magnets, sports schedules, etc., bearing the officials’ names and often likenesses, and to be handed out to voters.

The Ethics Commission already has issued one questionable opinion on the law. It could limit how private citizens use their money to support - or, conversely, oppose - officeholders running for re-election. That would infringe upon our freedom of speech. Ethics Commission members should revise that ruling.

Now there are questions about how officials can use “social media” such as Facebook, Twitter and the like. Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper has asked the commission for an opinion.

Carper wants answers to three questions, in essence. The first is whether the commission can limit how public officials use their personal social media accounts, such as Facebook pages. The second is whether government resources can be used to manage personal Facebook pages. The third is whether government social media sites can be used for purposes such as recognizing business owners or others who do good things for the community.

When any government resource is used, the answers to questions two and three seem obvious. What’s the difference between handing out taxpayer-funded trinkets with officeholders’ names and pictures on them and using public money to send those names and photos out on the Internet? There is very little.

If officials want to use government websites or social media accounts to recognize people in their communities, they’re free to do so with pictures and information about those folks - without including a smiling official/candidate shaking hands with someone.

But as for what authority the commission has over private social media maintained with private money, the answer is unequivocal: None. If an official wants to post a Facebook picture of himself kissing babies - and no public resources whatsoever were used to stage the picture or put it on the Internet - that’s his business and his alone.

It’s called freedom of speech. And here in West Virginia, we still take that seriously.

Online:

https://journal-news.net

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Aug. 17

The Exponent Telegram, Clarksburg, West Virginia, on how state worker pension plans:

Since the early 1990s, state government has been dealing with how to fund the nine different state worker pension plans.

In some ways, the news is better for some plans. For instance, as the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported Sunday, the teachers retirement system is now 66.2 percent funded.

Granted, it remains the worst funded of state workers pension plans, but as the Gazette-Mail pointed out, “the state has dramatically improved the system since 1991, when it was only 9 percent funded.”

But what state leaders haven’t improved is the type of pension plans offered.

In the state’s defined benefit plans, the bulk of the funding burden is placed on taxpayers instead of the employees, especially when the plan allows recipients to draw their pension based on the highest average salary over the final years of employment.

The Gazette-Mail reported there are 165 retired state employees who earn more than $80,000 per year in state pensions, including 40 who make more than $100,000.

Under the majority of the current plans, a retiree’s benefits are determined by taking the final average salary and multiplying it by years of service. That number is then multiplied by 2 percent in most cases, although State Police are multiplied by 2.75 percent and judges receive 75 percent of their highest average salary.

An example of the majority of pensions would be an employee who worked 40 years and whose highest average yearly salary was $100,000 (plans differ on whether they use a three- or five-year average).

Under the formula, the worker would receive $80,000 a year in benefits, even though for much of their career the employee and the state agency for which they worked were paying into the system based on a much lower salary.

The Gazette-Mail reported that the amount of pension money paid just to that group of 165 retirees totals about $15.5 million a year.

As the state’s population continues to age, the number of $80,000-plus-per-year retirees has grown, according to the Gazette-Mail study. Since 2009, the number has jumped from 98 to 165.

Already, pension funding makes up about 10 percent of the state budget. As more and more state employees retire, that percentage will climb.

And remember, some state employees can retire much earlier than the federally prescribed ages of 62 through 70.

State Police officers can retire as early as age 50 with 25 years of service or age 52 with 20 years, the Gazette-Mail reported.

Teachers can retire at any age with 35 years of service, while other state workers can retire at 55 if their age and years of service equal 80.

Officials and lawmakers have long said the defined benefit plans and early retirement options help recruit workers to government jobs that are often lower-paying than private-sector jobs.

At some point, that was probably true. But in many instances, state or county jobs are some of the better paying - and definitely offer better benefits.

This is to take nothing away from those drawing these pensions or those enrolled in the plans. They have been promised the pensions as they are currently offered.

But moving forward, state leaders would be wise to reconsider government pension plans before West Virginia finds itself desperately searching for ways to fund an overwhelmed system.

Defined benefit plans, at least as West Virginia’s are currently established, can’t be sustained for the long-term without significant taxpayer support. And that drains key funding needed to address other issues like infrastructure and economic development.

Sooner rather than later, things need to change.

Online:

https://www.theet.com


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