W.Va. lawmakers react to Tomblin’s State of the State
WHEELING – Northern Panhandle lawmakers cited Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s plans to increase funding for state employees’ health insurance and combat drug addiction as highlights of the governor’s State of the State address.
But for some, it was what they didn’t hear that left the strongest impression.
In his annual message to the Legislature, Tomblin attempted to set the tone for this year’s session by proposing, among other things, a 45-cent-per-pack increase in the state’s cigarette tax to fund the Public Employees Insurance Agency, as well as legislation to make Narcan – a drug that can reverse the effects of a heroin overdose – available to all West Virginians without a prescription.
State Sen. Jack Yost, D-Brooke, believes the estimated $43 million from the proposed cigarette tax increase won’t be enough to avert deep benefit cuts in PEIA, which faces a $120 million shortfall for the 2017 plan year.
“I didn’t hear enough (about) revenues for PEIA. I’m very concerned about that, and I’m very concerned about our roads,” Yost said. “I know no one likes taxes.”
Sen. Ryan Ferns, R-Ohio, said Tomblin’s proposals to increase revenue fall short of what’s needed to close a projected $350 million gap in the state’s budget. He’s skeptical of Tomblin’s assurances he can balance the budget without dipping into the state’s Rainy Day Fund for a third straight year.
“I’ll have to wait and see the budget itself to see how he plans to achieve that,” Ferns said.
Although he liked Tomblin’s plan to increase PEIA funding and expand access to Narcan, Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, also wanted to hear the governor’s stance on two pieces of legislation he opposes that are likely to be debated hotly this session – right-to-work and repeal of West Virginia’s prevailing wage requirement for public projects.
“I didn’t hear anything in that regard, and I was disappointed. I don’t think lowering the wages of hardworking men and women is going to help the economy of West Virginia,” Fluharty said.
Yost added he was happy to see a large crowd at the Capitol Wednesday evening demonstrating in support of union labor and maintaining the prevailing wage.
Also absent from the governor’s speech, Fluharty believes, was a long-term vision for keeping talented young people in West Virginia.
“We need to have a bigger vision for the future of our state. … That’s a discussion we need to have, and it starts with our governor,” he said.
Although some lawmakers questioned whether the measures Tomblin outlined will be enough to close the budget gap, Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, believes they are a step in the right direction.
“It’s recognizing that you’re not going to be able to cut your way to prosperity,” Kessler said. “It’s a first for him, truthfully, since he’s been governor and I think it’s a realistic assessment of where we are.”
On the other hand, Delegate Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, didn’t find much to like about Tomblin’s address.
“I thought it lacked intellectual substance. He didn’t make any real solutions to the budget deficit that we have,” McGeehan said. “Hopefully that will be enough to cover the largest projected deficit in West Virginia state government history, which is a bit naive, I think.”
McGeehan said he plans to offer a budget amendment to cut “unclassified” spending from the state budget that isn’t tied to any particular line item. That alone, he believes, would be enough to eliminate the shortfall without raising taxes.
Regarding Tomblin’s strategy to combat drug addiction, Ferns said he’s glad Tomblin is making it a priority but isn’t sure over-the-counter Narcan is the answer.
“What that neglects to do is treat the problem,” Ferns said. “I think there needs to be more emphasis and focus on recovery and treatment.”
Ferns said he’d like to see the Legislature expand access to Vivitrol – a relatively new, still-expensive drug that’s administered once a month and blocks the pleasurable feelings associated with taking heroin and other opioids. That, he believes, is a more effective strategy in combating addiction.