Recent editorials from West Virginia newspapers:
The Charleston Gazette-Mail on West Virginia’s budget crisis:
West Virginia is in trouble. Revenue Secretary Bob Kiss told legislators that the state government will face a budget shortfall “north of $400 million” for the fiscal year starting next July 1.
He said the state cannot cut any more public services, after Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin already slashed $400 million in the past three years. Therefore, huge amounts of new revenue must be found.
Also, the Public Employees Insurance Agency, which covers health care for more than 200,000 West Virginians, will need another $50 million to stay afloat, director Ted Cheatham told lawmakers.
When the conservative-dominated Legislature convenes next month, will it follow its old pattern of wasting time on shallow emotional issues: pistols, gays, curbing women’s right to choose, smashing labor unions, etc.?
Republicans gathered in Charleston this week and said their top priorities will be fighting pollution controls and killing the Affordable Care Act that gives medical insurance to 20 million Americans. What worthless goals - changes that hurt people.
We hope the 2017 Legislature makes a genuine effort to raise revenue and solve the Mountain State’s trouble. Here are some ideas:
Legalize marijuana. The state could gain vast millions if it licensed and taxed pot now grown illicitly in mountain patches. Legalization is spreading across America. Why should West Virginia be the last to join this progress that wipes out criminal pot trafficking?
Raise soda taxes. In a Gazette-Mail commentary, WVU professor William Neal - a leader of the university’s Coronary Artery Risk Detection in Appalachian Communities (CARDIAC) project - pointed out that this state has America’s worst obesity rate. This leads to chronic health problems, once associated with old age, showing up in children. Raising taxes on sugary soda drinks would raise revenue, but it would also cause people to think twice before buying them.
Boost the state cigarette tax to around $1.50 per pack, as health advocates want. The 2016 increase to $1 per pack was beneficial - but raising it further would help health and revenue more.
Opponents to new taxes sometimes say the state must grow its whole economy and generate income by having more employers and more employees. There is no doubt about that. West Virginia needs a larger, more active, more diverse, more robust economy. But that economy is not going to materialize before this year’s bills come due. West Virginia must have both - more revenue to get through the short-term and more economic activity for the long-term.
When legislators gather next month, will they squander their time on the same old “God, guns and gays” far-right agenda, or will they help West Virginia?
The Register-Herald on deputy layoffs in McDowell County:
The looming layoff of six deputy sheriffs in McDowell County is a serious concern. If the positions are lost, public safety will be compromised.
According to Sheriff Martin West, the county commission recently cut $240,000 from the sheriff’s office budget. He says unless a “miracle” happens, six more deputies will lose their jobs by the end of the year.
That’s in addition to a deputy, a tax department employee and a process server position already eliminated by West. The department is currently down to 13 officers, including the sheriff.
If the feared layoffs materialize, the department will then be down to seven deputies and that would result in an elimination of any evening and night coverage, West told the Daily Telegraph last week.
“We’ll have to rely on the West Virginia State Police,” West said. “We have to try to respond to emergencies, but it’s going to be mainly up to the state police.”
West said the deputies are obligated to meet mandated requirements, like serving courts and providing transports, and that leaves little manpower for other services.
West will be meeting soon with the county commissioners to see if any money may be available. Salary cuts have also been discussed to retain jobs.
“But we don’t have a tax base now,” West said. “McDowell County is the poorest county in the state and in the nation per capita.”
West said he brought the looming crisis to the attention of U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., last month when the lawmaker was visiting McDowell County.
The issue is going to boil down to the question of whether the county wants adequate law enforcement, West said, adding that the service should be a priority.
We agree. Members of the county commission must work closely with the sheriff’s office to avert this looming crisis. Public safety must be a priority.
The possible loss of evening or night patrols by the sheriff’s office would be a troubling development for McDowell County and would impact public safety.
No stone should be left unturned when it comes to finding ways to fund these vital deputy sheriff positions.
The Intelligencer/Wheeling News-Register on help for retired coal miners:
The short-term rescue retired coal miners were handed by Congress last week will have to do - for now. But coal-state lawmakers are right to reject it as a shut-up-and-go-away moment in Washington.
For months, members of Congress from West Virginia, Ohio and other states had fought to gain enactment of what had been termed a “bailout” bill for the miners. It came down to a near-standoff last week, as both the Senate and House of Representatives were wrapping up business before the Christmas break.
At stake are health care insurance and pension benefits for thousands of miners and their families. The impending collapse of a system worked out between the United Mine Workers union and coal operators many years ago is the problem. Mine closures, many because of President Barack Obama’s policies, have limited contributions into the insurance and pension funds.
Without a bailout, an estimated 16,300 retired miners would have lost health care insurance on Jan. 1.
Some members of Congress balked at such assistance, however. As we have pointed out, they have some valid concerns that need to be dealt with.
Last week, lawmakers were on the verge of leaving Washington without doing anything for the retirees. That was despite a move led by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., threatening to block other budget-related action.
In the end, Manchin and others involved in that threat relented. Congress approved a measure to fund the health care benefits for four months.
That certainly was better than nothing. But, given the slowness with which anything happens in Congress, a four-month reprieve is worrisome.
As many lawmakers, including Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and U.S. Rep. David McKinley, both R-W.Va., have urged, President-elect Donald Trump should make a permanent solution for the retirees a fundamental goal of his first few months in office.
Capito put it well in a letter to Trump, reminding him of his pledge to turn back the regulatory assault on the coal industry. “It is just as important that we act to preserve health care and pension benefits for retirees,” she added.
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