Worry About W.Va. Future

For the past couple of decades, West Virginia governors and legislators have done a truly magnificent job of worrying about what will happen to our state after they leave office. It was not always so. We continue to pay a steep price for the period during which state leaders expanded politically popular programs with little or no regard to paying for them.

Why would we make that mistake again, even as we continue to bear the burden of hundreds of millions of dollars a year needed to pay off old unfunded liabilities?

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is under considerable pressure to bow to one of the demands in the national health care law, frequently referred to as “Obamacare.” It requires that states expand their Medicaid programs to provide health care assistance to low- and moderate-income people.

Tomblin has adopted a prudent strategy, however. He wants to know more about what expanding Medicaid will cost the people of West Virginia before making a recommendation to the Legislature. A Maryland consultant has been commissioned to prepare a report on fiscal aspects of the issue.

But we already know the answer to the question: We can’t afford it without tax increases, possibly hefty ones.

Medicaid, funded jointly by the state and federal governments, already covers about 420,000 Mountain State residents. Almost entirely because of increases in what the state has to pay for the program, Tomblin and legislators have had to make very real cuts in spending. Several state agencies already have been told to cut spending for next year by 7.5 percent.

And that may not be the end of it. Revenue for this fiscal year is behind expectations, to the point lawmakers have cut $28 million in current budget spending and the governor has ordered a freeze on state hiring.

Proponents of expanding Medicaid – by adding about 150,000 new clients – insist it is affordable. The federal government will pay for it all, they claim.

But that would be for only the first three years of the expanded program. After that, the federal commitment is for 90 percent of the tab, with the state expected to pay the remaining 10 percent.

West Virginia cannot even afford that.

In addition to wondering how the state would come up with 10 percent of the cost of health insurance for 150,000 people, Tomblin and legislators should be asking themselves how much they trust the federal government to keep its 90 percent promise.

There is no reason – none at all – to rely on it. At some point, a future White House and Congress will have no choice but to cut federal spending. History assures us funding to the states will be among the first items to feel the knife.

Tomblin and legislators still must come up with hundreds of millions of dollars a year to pay down unfunded liabilities dumped on West Virginians by politicians who didn’t worry about burdening future generations. That attitude appears to be all but dead in our state. Let’s not resurrect it.