Try remembering March

Assume for a moment that your family has had five really bad financial years in a row. Every year, you’ve taken in far less money than you’d hoped. You’ve had to dip deeply into your savings account to keep your head above water. You’ve had to reduce your spending.

What would you expect for year six?

If you’re being honest in your answer, you may understand why Republican legislators in West Virginia are getting a very bad rap from their Democrat and labor union opponents.

“Remember in November” has been a popular slogan among those seeking to replace GOP lawmakers with Democrats.

All right. It’s November. Let’s try remembering March.

It was then that lawmakers were struggling to meet striking public school employees’ demands for pay raises and some sort of bailout of the Public Employees Insurance Agency (more on the PEIA in a moment).

Republicans who control both chambers of the Legislature were worried about Gov. Jim Justice’s recommendation that they approve 5 percent raises for school employees. First, the lawmakers noted, it wouldn’t be fair to give school employees that much and other state workers less, as had been suggested.

But how to pay for the raises (somewhere around $82 million a year, as I recall), was an even bigger concern.

Why would they worry about a little thing like money?

They had plenty of reasons to worry. During the five fiscal years preceding the one that ended last June 30, total revenue collections for the general fund budget were $349 million less than had been expected.

That required mid-year spending cuts, including some that affected public schools. It also necessitated borrowing heavily from the “Rainy Day” fund, which is supposed to be reserved for emergencies.

On June 28, 2013, the Rainy Day fund held a total of $914.5 million. By last March, it had been drained down to $709.2 million.

If you’d had five years in a row as bad as that, proportionately, of course, you’d be scared to commit to any new spending for the coming year, too.

So it’s no wonder the legislators worried about where they’d get the money for those 5 percent raises. Heck, it took them two whole weeks to come up with a way out of the dilemma.

But eventually, they did. Gov. Jim Justice promised them the money would be available this year. They took him at his word and approved the raises. Fortunately, he was right. With any luck, the state may end the current fiscal year with a $300 million surplus.

Justice has already pledged to spend most of that on a second 5 percent raise for public employees, along with an additional $100 million for the PEIA.

Which brings us back to the insurance program. How much do you suppose, dear taxpayer, that you are paying to subsidize the PEIA?

About $575 million a year. That works out to about $320 for every man, woman and child in West Virginia.

Justice proposes to add $100 million to the total — and Republican lawmakers have said they’re on board with that.

Some educators point out that in exchange for lower salaries than most other states pay, they’re entitled to a good health insurance plan. Fair enough.

Clearly, however, some way has to be found to contain ever-increasing insurance costs.

Now that they have believable assurances the money will be there, Republican lawmakers seem eager to provide more for the PEIA and more for educators’ salaries.

One wonders where the “Remember in November” signs were when legislatures controlled by Democrats, often with some money to spend, were not approving teacher pay hikes.

Truth is, what’s going on is only partly about school employees’ pay and the PEIA. Also involved is solidarity among public school unions and other labor organizations, which are furious about GOP legislators’ actions on issues such as right-to-work and prevailing wage.

The bottom line is this: When you go to the polls on Nov. 6, go ahead and “Remember in November.”

But also, stop for a moment and “Remember the March state revenue report.”

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.


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