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Trial

Capito, Manchin faced with major decision

No doubt West Virginia’s U.S. senators, Republican Shelley Moore Capito and Democrat Joe Manchin, understood when they took office that they would be making critically important decisions, not just for our state but also for the nation, even the world, as a whole.

Neither may have imagined the positions they would be in this month, however. For only the third time in the nation’s history, the Senate is deliberating whether to remove a president of the United States.

Manchin and Capito, along with the 98 other senators, will be writing history during the next several days.

Both have vowed to deal objectively and fairly with the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. Though they are of opposite political parties, Mountain State residents are counting upon Capito and Manchin to provide Trump with a fair trial.

Both will be under enormous political pressure. Leaders of both their parties have made their expectations clear — and, frankly, both seem to desire that senators follow predetermined scripts.

That is not what West Virginians want, however — and we are counting on our two senators to throw party loyalty out the window and deliver simple justice.

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Ted Cheatham, who is executive director of West Virginia’s Public Employees Insurance Agency, knows the route to the state Capitol well. He has traveled it many times, often with hat in hand.

It will not be long before he repeats the performance, Cheatham informed members of the House of Delegates Finance Committee on Friday.

Tens of thousands of working and retired public employees rely on the PEIA for health insurance. About 80% of their premiums are paid by taxpayers.

PEIA expenses have risen substantially, as have costs for health care in general. That frequently requires Cheatham to ask legislators for supplemental appropriations.

Last year, they agreed to set aside $105 million in a “rainy day” fund similar to one by the same name used to guard against fiscal emergencies involving other state agencies’ budgets. No doubt some lawmakers hoped handing over that much money would allow them — and West Virginia taxpayers — to rest easy for a few years.

On Friday, Cheatham told finance committee members the $105 million may be gone by fiscal 2023 — only about two and a half years from now.

He explained the PEIA has a Premium Stabilization Reserve Fund of nearly $60 million, in addition to the $105 million approved last year by legislators. The $60 million account was established solely to avoid having to increase premiums paid by PEIA enrollees.

By the end of fiscal 2022, the entire $165 million may be gone. Projections are that the PEIA will have to ask lawmakers for another supplemental appropriation.

Talk about a broken record. PEIA expenses are like the weather — everyone complains about them, but no one ever does anything to solve the problem.

Lawmakers and PEIA officials need to find a way to get cost increases under control. One cannot blame some West Virginia taxpayers for being sick of the PEIA.

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When you find yourself up to your neck in work that needs done around the house or decide you lack the expertise to handle some tasks, it makes sense to hire someone else for some jobs, if you can afford to do so. The West Virginia Division of Highways should be given the same flexibility.

A bill introduced in the state Senate, SB 148, would provide for it. The measure would permit the DOH to hire private contractors for some maintenance work, such as snow removal. Sponsored by Sens. Sue Cline, R-Wyoming and Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, the bill notes that the DOH, “through no fault of its own, struggles to maintain roadways to the expectations of the citizens of this state.” That has been obvious for years.

Money is at the root of this particular evil. DOH officials simply do not have enough personnel, equipment and funding for materials to do all the motoring public wants. SB 148 would give the agency flexibility in getting some jobs done without having to expand DOH employment and/or buy equipment that is not cost-effective for limited use.

Of course, enactment of SB 148 would open new opportunities for waste and, sad to say, outright corruption in awarding contracts. Cline and Sypolt were wise to include language stipulating procedures to be followed in awarding contracts.

Also, the bill requires that reports on the program must be submitted to the Legislature for review by the Legislative Auditor “to ensure efficient operations, economic responsibility, and any other factors for the continued success of the program.”

It requires little imagination to understand what a godsend SB 148 would be in certain circumstances. A major snowstorm could overwhelm the DOH — but allowing it to contract with private companies for snow removal could help. SB 148 certainly is worth a look by lawmakers, providing they believe the measure includes adequate safeguards to prevent waste of taxpayers’ money.