UNDER THE DOME
by By TOM MILLER
The latest round of potential new taxes to help finance West Virginia's 36,000-mile highway system--tossed out during a legislative interim committee meeting last week in Charleston by a spokesman for the Division of Highways--is not only ridiculous. It is asinine.
Brent Walker, the Division of Highways spokesman who outlined the possibilities to a select legislative committee on infrastructure, said the agency was trying to be "creative" in its approach. And clearly there is a need for additional tax revenue to cover the costs of maintaining the primary and secondary roads in this state.
But the suggestion that food purchased at drive-in windows of fast-food outlets be subject to an additional five cents per dollar tax while the same sandwich or soft drink ordered by parking the car and walking inside would not be included in this new tax seems more crazy than creative.
Since this would raise the cost of a burger from $1.06 ($1 plus the current six percent sales tax) to $1.11 (with a second five percent tax on purchases made at the drive-up window), Delegate Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, immediately dubbed it the "cheeseburger tax."
But DOH didn't stop there. Other proposals laid on the table for discussion was a new one percent surcharge on car insurance premiums. Based on the agency's estimates, there would be new revenue for highway construction and maintenance of $10 million a year since there are approximately one million vehicles with an average annual premium of $1,000.
Another suggestion was that residential property taxes be increased 10 cents for each $100 of assessed value with the money derived from this new tax revenue dedicated to county highway maintenance. There was even talk of a new severance tax on gas and oil production to offset the damage the heavy equipment causes on state highways, especially now in light of the dramatic increase in gas wells drilled in Marcellus Shale.
Another Eastern Panhandle legislator, Del. Jonathan Miller, R-Berkeley, offered an equally silly alternative during the discussion. He said he would prefer that the DOH cut salaries of its employees. His rationale was that prevailing wage rates used on highway projects helps inflate the cost of road construction and maintenance. Lower wages would allow more highway projects to be completed and employ more workers, Miller argued.
This option seems as equally unlikely as the extra tax at the drive-in window. But the problem of finding additional funding as West Virginia struggles to provide the $1 billion plus needed to adequately maintain the state's highway network isn't going to disappear. So more reasonable solutions are needed.
Meanwhile. another idea that surfaced at last week's legislative interim committee meetings seems a little more palatable. Some legislators want to consider encouraging state and public school employees to keep working until they are 65 years of age as a step toward reducing the costs of future health insurance coverage for these people.
Under current law, many of them are eligible to retire--and do--at age 55. And nearly all of them are eligible to quit work at 60. So the only way to get these folks to consider this longer work term is to come up with some options to encourage that extended time on the job.
One of the ideas is to actually start depositing their pension benefits in an account for a lump-sum payment at age 65 which doesn't seem to be much of a savings except they would be still paying a portion of their health insurance coverage each month
But those who work until age 65 then are eligible for federal Medicare coverage that will greatly reduce the state's obligation to their healthcare expenses after retirement. And with a current $8 billion unfunded liability to overcome, lawmakers are willing to try almost anything to help reduce that debt. . .
Finally, since nearly half of the 44,000 inmates in West Virginia's 10 regional jails last year were there because of some drug-related or alcohol-related problem, it behooves prison officials to find a way to provide long-term substance abuse treatment programs for these offenders.
But right now they aren't in jail long enough to benefit from the programs now offered while they are confined. And regional jails can't require them to submit to counseling or treatment after they are released like the state prison system can. That needs to be changed.
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