West Virginia editorial roundup
Recent editorials from West Virginia newspapers:
The Herald-Dispatch on a bill that would allow out-of-town residents paying city user fees to vote in municipal elections:
A piece of legislation that invokes the Boston Tea Party and takes a slap at West Virginia cities that impose user fees has been introduced in the state’s Houses of Delegates.
House Bill 4041, called the “Taxation without Representation Act,” proposes that people who pay a user fee to a city but do not reside within its borders should be allowed to vote in that city’s municipal elections. “It’s really no different than one of the causes of the American Revolution,” lead sponsor Del. Gary Howell, R-Mineral, said at a recent legislative session, according to a report by the Charleston Gazette-Mail. “We complained that, ‘Hey, England, you’re taxing us, and we have no representation — taxation without representation.’ Rather than go dump a bunch of tea into the Kanawha River, I thought I’d just draft a bill.”
However, it’s a bill that should be allowed to die. First, the cities that impose the fee have a reasonable justification for doing so — one that’s passed muster of the courts. Secondly, if the bill became law, it would certainly complicate establishing who is eligible to vote and who’s not in a municipal election — posing a daunting challenge for election officials.
Among the half-dozen or so cities in the state that impose a user fee are Charleston, which applies a $3 per week fee on all people who work in the city, and Huntington, which has a user fee of $5 a week. The fees apply to anyone who is employed in those cities, regardless of residency. So, yes people who live outside the city pay it and now do not have an opportunity to vote in the elections. However, they certainly have a right to have their opinions heard about the fee and can express them to the appropriate elected officials if they wish.
The basis for the cities’ user fees is reasonable. Cities have built and maintained the infrastructure, the services and the mass of people that employers need to carry out their business. And for many people, even if they live outside a city, those employers located in a city offer a place to work and earn a living. Just like residents of a city, non-residents who are employed in that city use many of the same streets, bridges and services while they travel to and from the places where they work. So, it is only reasonable for those non-resident employees to pay a share of the costs of city operations.
In Charleston’s case, that amounts to $156 a year. In Huntington, the fee amounts to $260 annually. Neither is an outrageous amount. Nor is it anywhere close to what city residents and employers pay in a variety of taxes and fees, for fire protection, in property taxes, business and occupation taxes, sanitary and storm sewer fees and the like. Residents in the city typically pay several hundred dollars more to support city government than non-residents who only pay the user fee.
Keep in mind that if a city’s elected officials raise the fee to what most people — whether residents or non-residents — believe is too unreasonable, those officials will be held accountable.
In addition, opening up municipal elections to non-resident fee payers would add just another layer of complication to determine who is and is not eligible to vote, with people from places throughout the region possibly seeking to cast a ballot. Adding that level of complexity seems impractical.
The legislature has far more pressing concerns than the subject of this legislation.
Charleston Daily Mail on lawmakers promoting free community and technical college tuition:
We all know what the word “free” often seems to mean when it comes to government programs.
Too often, free means taxpayers are going to pay for a service for someone who may or may not deserve it. Too often, it means the program is not well-managed. And too often the program becomes an expensive entitlement that never goes away.
So when the Governor’s Office and legislative leaders started promoting the idea of “free community and technical college tuition” for West Virginia students, small government supporters and fiscal conservatives understandably got a bit uneasy.
Aren’t these the kinds of ideas that come from the big-government Democratic side of the aisle?
But the arguments in favor of the program are compelling — enough to make us think this formerly zany idea may work, if done very carefully.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, a strong proponent of the plan, pointed out that West Virginia has among the lowest education attainment rates in the nation, and it has the nation’s lowest workforce participation rate.
“The only way to break that is through education,” the sixth-year senator told the Daily Mail Opinion page. “We have got to give (students) an avenue and a path to better their future.”
West Virginia has known for years that it needs more people with education beyond high school to improve its workforce and attract employers and job creators. Yet the gap between the needs of employers and the skills of the workforce is still wide.
And part of the reason is that West Virginia leads the nation in the number of drug overdose deaths. Could that be due to the despair and lack of opportunity many in West Virginia feel?
Meanwhile, with energy and highway infrastructure projects on the horizon, as well as potential new petrochemical manufacturing opportunities, the state can’t afford to miss out on growth. It needs a trained and ready workforce.
Strong arguments, no doubt, but does that mean we have to provide “free” tuition? Shouldn’t students have to be committed to the goal of achieving their own education?
Carmichael explained the program could entice students from families with no college-going tradition. And the program will require a commitment from the students.
First, they’ll have to submit to a drug test and be ready and capable of going to school — just as if they were going to work.
Second, there is a community service requirement attached to the tuition.
Third, students must maintain a certain grade point average or lose their free ride.
And finally, if they move out of state after they complete a West Virginia taxpayer-provided degree, they will be required to pay their WVInvests Grant back, just as if it were a student loan.
Senate Bill 284 is modeled after a similar program in Tennessee, passed under the leadership of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam.
“In Tennessee, we’ve determined that the best jobs plan is an education plan,” Haslam said about his state’s program. “If we want to have jobs ready for Tennesseans, we have to make sure that Tennesseans are ready for jobs. There is no smarter investment than increasing access to high-quality education.”
Perhaps it is time for West Virginia to try such a radical departure from traditional thinking. Perhaps people who today see little hope for their future will now see opportunity. Perhaps the program will be a great success and part of an education and economic turnaround for West Virginia.
We think it’s worth the risk — on an experimental basis. But to prevent the program from growing into another unwieldy, unaccountable government program, we urge lawmakers to add a sunset provision in the bill. Set the program to expire in eight years unless lawmakers see that the program is working, in which case they can reauthorize or change it.
That way, state taxpayers can be assured of a successful program instead of another never-ending government boondoggle.
Charleston Gazette on Gov. Jim Justice’s plan for teacher pay raises:
Teachers judged Gov. Jim Justice’s plan for a 1 percent pay raise inadequate, and they’re right.
Justice also said in his state of the state address that he would like to give teachers another 1 percent increase, in each of the next four years. Teachers are also right not to count on good intentions.
Had the Legislature gone along with the governor last year when he wanted to give teachers a raise, West Virginia would be further along in making up the lag in teacher pay. Will the Legislature be any more eager this year?
It will also be tough for the Legislature to find the money for future pay raises if it cuts taxes, such as the proposed cut to business property taxes, without finding a way to make up that revenue.
Tax cuts with no replacement revenue is just a recipe for more of what West Virginia has experienced in recent years — budget cuts, thwarted plans for important investments, deferred maintenance, deferred compensation for valuable workers, spending down the rainy day fund, unhappiness.
At a rally last week, teachers even broached the possibility of a strike, a term that has percolated up from individual teachers, said American Federation of Teachers leader Christine Campbell, not from the group’s leadership.
That’s a measure of teachers’ frustration.
There have been no significant pay raises for years. At the same time, the Public Employees Insurance Agency has raised premiums, so take-home pay has actually gone down for many.
There are about 700 vacancies in schools across the state, with some classes taught by people who are not fully certified.
This was not the plan. In 2014, the Legislature set a goal of starting bachelor’s degree teachers at no less than $43,000 a year by 2019. The 2019 fiscal year starts July 1, but teachers still start out around $33,000, though some counties may do better.
The National Education Association ranks West Virginia 48th in average teacher pay. Any mayor, sheriff or CEO will recognize that formula — West Virginia pays to train new teachers, who move up and out to better-paying jobs across the state line.
Teachers deserve to see their pay rise, to be competitive with teachers in surrounding states and to not see their earnings eroded in rising health care costs.
Indeed, these issues are so important, we wish lawmakers and the governor would address them earlier in the cycle, such as over the summer.
How much more smoothly could public education run if teachers head back to school in the fall with a clearer sense of where the governor and Legislature stand on their compensation?
While they are at it, could schools work out a system to hire teachers in May when bright young graduates are looking for jobs, instead of waiting until August when the most promising applicants have been snapped up by other states?
Along those lines, could teachers and the state work out a policy that rewards retiring teachers for scheduling departures at end of a school year when possible, rather than in the middle?
It may not matter in most jobs, where people deal with their colleagues coming and going all the time, but in a school habitat, pulling a teacher out part-way through the academic year disrupts students. The disruption can ripple through the entire system as educators naturally bounce around filling vacancies where their interests and opportunities take them.
Gov. Justice did well to propose a pay increase for teachers. Lawmakers should budget carefully and do their best to improve upon it.