W.VA. Leadership Discusses Taxes, Education Ahead Of Session

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Public education, health insurance for government employees and restructuring the ailing Department of Health and Human Resources will be key priorities for West Virginia lawmakers during the new legislative session beginning next week.

Also, tax cuts, if Republican leaders can agree on a plan for how to do it.

Lawmakers in both the Senate and the House of Delegates are planning to introduce legislation that would place teaching assistants in early-grade classrooms, Republican Senate President Craig Blair said during a preview of the upcoming session organized by the West Virginia Press Association Friday.

The proposal comes after West Virginia scored historically low on the most recent nationwide reading and math assessment. The Republican supermajority has focused on expanding alternative education programs like charter schools and school choice programs.

“We’ve done just about all we can do for alternative education,” Blair said. Now, it's time to focus on public education.

Republican House Speaker Roger Hanshaw said if students are not able to master reading skills at young age, “we’ve hamstrung them for life."

The proposal was introduced last year by Hanshaw, but the legislation failed to advance. However, he said he feels confident there will be more buy-in on the proposal this year.

Legislative leadership also said changes are long overdue to the Public Employees Insurance Agency, which provides provides health care coverage to state and local government employees and their families. The total enrollment is about 75,000 active members.

Rising healthcare costs and concerns about the long-term solvency of the Public Employees Insurance Agency was a major driver of the statewide teachers’ walkout in 2018, and public employees say not enough has been done to address those issues since.

On Thursday, WVU Medicine Wheeling Hospital announced that it will stop accepting Public Employees Insurance Agency patients July 1 because of low reimbursement rates.

“Who didn’t see this coming?” Blair said, adding that the Senate unanimously passed a bill last year to increase the reimbursement rates hospitals that treat Public Employees Insurance Agency patients receive. The proposed legislation would have increased the current 59% Public Employees Insurance Agency in-patient reimbursement rate to 110% of the Medicare reimbursement rate.

Blair said he expects a similar bill to be proposed again during the upcoming session.

“If we don’t do something fairly quickly on that, that is going to be contagious," he said, of the situation at Wheeling Hospital. "Mark my words.”

Blair also said he expects lawmakers to act on the Department of Health and Human Resources “in some serious way” this session. One priority is increasing the number of child protective services workers in the state, especially in places like the Eastern Panhandle. Another is creating more transparency in the department. Blair said the state agency not been as forthcoming as policymakers would like in cases where a child dies in state custody, or when its has faced allegations of abuse or neglect in provider settings.

Earlier this week, Justice said he will announce yet another proposal to cut taxes at the start of the new session. Senate GOP leaders are expected to offer their own proposals. Justice and lawmakers have been at odds on how to cut taxes for nearly two years.

The governor proposed a permanent 10% reduction in the personal income tax in July after the state ended the fiscal year with a record $1.3 billion surplus. The state Senate refused to take up proposal during a special session that month.

In October, Justice came up with another plan, saying he wanted to eliminate a personal property tax that residents pay every year on vehicles. That proposal was floated before voters in November rejected a proposed constitutional amendment that would have given lawmakers the ability to eliminate a business and inventory tax along with the personal property vehicle tax.