West Virginia editorial roundup
Recent editorials from West Virginia newspapers:
The Charleston Gazette on collecting sales tax on products bought online:
Riddle us this, Gov. Jim Justice: If the U.S. Supreme Court has just cleared the way for states to collect sales tax on products bought online, and West Virginia is looking under every couch cushion to come up with future funding for PEIA, why not go ahead and collect the revenue the state already has coming to it?
Actually, fairness should have been an even bigger motivation to collect that revenue. Online shopping is great. But online merchants across the country enjoy advantages that brick-and-mortar stores don’t, such as the ability to not remit local sales taxes.
Physical stores and other businesses also incur costs that online merchants don’t have. They maintain a building, hopefully with some curb appeal. They have to staff and secure it. It takes more time and employees to maintain a space where the public comes and goes all day, touching and trying the merchandise. Public restrooms, lighting, snow removal. Such factors contribute to cost.
The presence of brick-and-mortar businesses also contributes to the vitality of West Virginia towns and counties. They help create the sense of place, a place to go, to gather, to hold a parade. Ask any local merchant about the questions they get. Can we hang our community theater poster in your window? Would you like to sponsor our Little League? We’re collecting for band uniforms.
So why should they pay sales taxes, when another business selling the same thing to the same customer does not?
Online shopping isn’t going to go away. It’s convenient. It’s a happy development for consumers, but it does not deserve the subsidy it gets from the state of West Virginia, particularly at the expense of West Virginia’s own businesses.
It just so happens, the state has an extra incentive to make sure it is getting all the revenue it is owed.
To convince the state’s teachers to go back to work, Gov. Justice and the Legislature wisely froze Public Employees Insurance Agency payments early this year, so state employees could count on their bills not going up for once. The governor appointed a group to recommend a long-term solution.
To get through the current year, the Legislature pulled one-time money from other categories and got lucky — revenue went up this year. As they well know, that is not a long-term strategy. You have to be prepared for downturns, too. Of course, the PEIA bill grows by about $50 million a year, a much larger problem.
So, while funding PEIA is not the best reason for the state to collect sales tax revenue that it is already owed, it should be motivating.
The Herald-Dispatch says West Virginia administrators must account for proper spending:
Inadequately keeping track of taxpayers’ money — whether it’s being spent on what it’s supposed to, whether it’s accomplishing the purposes set for it — seems to be a recurring problem in West Virginia state government.
Over the decades, there have been numerous examples of whether those in charge of the state’s purse strings are being diligent in ensuring the appropriate and efficient use of those funds. One example that comes to mind — and pointed out in frequent audits during the past decade — is the state’s struggles in knowing just how many state-owned vehicles it has, whether they are being used appropriately and whether all those vehicles are necessary. That was something current Gov. Jim Justice’s administration tried to tackle shortly after he took office in 2017.
But there have been several troubling episodes that have come to light just recently. Spending by the Supreme Court of Appeals has been questioned, to the point that one member of the court has been indicted. Also in the news recently is the handling of federal money awarded to the state to help people recover from the devastating 2016 floods and questions about why very little of that money has been spent two years later.
And the list keeps growing.
More recently has come revelations that the state continued to pay the owners of White Hall’s Middletown Mall $31,000 per month to lease space for nearly three years after the Department of Health and Human Resources moved out of that space.
In their findings, auditors reported that DHHR wrote the monthly checks as its employees said in emails they knew the department had vacated the space as of May 31, 2015, according to a report in the Charleston Gazette-Mail. During that nearly three-year period, both DHHR and the Real Estate Division of the Department of Administration received correspondence from outside groups about the space and altered its payment processes for it as well. The payments continued until February 2018 before someone took sufficient enough action to stop the payments.
The upshot: About $1 million in taxpayer money was spent that shouldn’t have been.
DHHR officials acknowledge that the continued payments should never have occurred and say they are exploring legal options to recover the misspent money.
Some legislators are now calling for a full investigation of the Real Estate Division to determine whether the state is paying for any other properties it is not using. One lawmaker cited a law passed in 2007 that requires the Real Estate Division to review the state’s inventory of real estate at least every four years to identify any properties owned or leased by the state that are either not being used or being substantially underused — and suggesting that such reviews have not been done.
Lawmakers might want to think about requiring such reports more often than that, because a lot of money can be wasted in less than four years, as the Middletown Mall case demonstrates.
J.B. McCuskey, the state auditor, described the situation aptly to the Gazette-Mail, saying the DHHR leasing snafu illustrates another case of a government agency not on top of its internal workings and costing the taxpayer. “We have a giant bureaucracy that needs to focus itself on how it spends its money; on ensuring that all of the money that is spent is done so with an understanding of whose it is,” he said.
State administrators and employees should proceed with that attitude as a guiding principle to ensure that taxpayer money is used appropriately.
The Journal says children living in poverty is a societal concern:
West Virginia is home to an array of demographics, despite what outside perception may suggest. There are areas of booming business and industry, educational hubs and small rural communities.
An issue affecting all corners of this diverse state is poverty — specifically children in poverty and how it impacts their well-being.
This year’s Kids Count Data Book revealed how children are faring across the country and pointed to some successes and failures in West Virginia, as reported in a Journal article a week ago
The annual data book uses 16 indicators to rank each state across four domains - health, education, economic well-being and family and community - as an assessment of child well-being, according to the article.
West Virginia ranks 47th overall in child well-being — down five spots from last year — and about 24 percent of children are living in poverty across the state.
According to Data USA, the poverty rate in Berkeley County is 13.2 percent while it is nearly 40 percent in McDowell County — West Virginia’s southernmost county, which has been hit hard by the demise of the coal industry. Last year, The Journal reported Jefferson County Schools saw a spike in homeless students and cited poverty as one of the causes.
If those statistics say anything, it’s that children living in poverty is not an isolated issue. Regions all over the state are facing unique struggles associated with the trend.
Living in poverty can translate into many realities and lifestyles, all of which can have major impacts on the life of a child with no choice in the matter. Food insecurity, inadequate health care, poor academic achievement, abuse, neglect and behavioral and emotional problems are just some of the potential consequences on a child in poverty, according to the American Psychological Association.
Anyone who has lived in poverty — especially during formative years — can attest to this and much more. Worrying about where your next meal is coming from or how long you’ll get to stay in your house is difficult for a child and the reasons why are often out of their comprehension level, which makes that reality even scarier. When those are your troubles at home, it makes doing well on a math test or getting along with your peers seem like trivial issues. Having such adult-level priorities at a young age pushes such developmental benchmarks of being a child to the wayside, which impacts your future emotionally, physically, educationally and psychologically.
These children will most likely grow up to be members of our society and independent residents of this state, so it is in ever, West Virginian’s best interest to find solutions to poverty and child well-being issues.
“We encourage everyone — from a parent to the media — to educate themselves on the data and to use it to influence policy change on behalf of West Virginia children and their families. The data is the baseline. Advocacy comes next, followed by change,” said Tricia Kingery, executive director of West Virginia Kids Count.
We agree with Kingery and applaud anyone who works to help children facing poverty and its consequences. If you have the opportunity to make a difference in lives of local children, through charities, education, advocacy groups or after-school programs, please do. Every poverty-stricken child who finds a path to a new outlook or opportunity has the potential to make a difference in our state as they grow into a member of society.