To Strike Or Not to Strike?

After watching the video for last week’s Public Employees Insurance Agency Taskforce subcommittee for public outreach, I reasonably believe rumors of a fall teachers’ strike are true.

The fall teachers’ strike is probably one of the worst kept secrets in Charleston. I can’t tell you how many random people either tell me about it or ask me what I know about it. The answer is I know nothing about it, but yet the rumor has been out there.

Tuesday’s meeting should have been simple enough: approve a report summarizing the concerns expressed by state employees at 21 public hearings around the state and through an online survey. Somehow this turned into some members of the subcommittee (specifically the union representatives) wanting the subcommittee itself to issue recommendations to the Cost and Revenue Subcommittee.

For one thing, that’s not the outreach subcommittee’s job. That’s like me hiring a polling service to conduct a poll asking what pizza is better: the Pizza Place or DiCarlo’s. Just because the results come back that 60 percent of respondents prefer the Pizza Place over DiCarlo’s doesn’t mean I’d recommend bulldozing all DiCarlo’s locations.

A large majority of respondents to the survey and attendees of the public hearings believe that PEIA is too expensive, there should be a dedicated funding stream and that funding stream should be an increase in the natural gas severance tax rate. Many respondents also recommend raising taxes on tobacco, alcohol and soft drinks.

Should this info be relayed to the full taskforce? Of course, as that is the subcommittee’s mandate. But Senate President Mitch Carmichael is right to be dubious of the motives of his fellow subcommittee members. Watching that video from the subcommittee meeting, it sure seemed like Christine Campbell, president of the state American Federation of Teachers chapter, was trying to trick Carmichael into agreeing to submit recommendations.

Carmichael is a Republican and, naturally, doesn’t support tax increases on natural gas severance. If the subcommittee recommends raising the natural gas severance tax, that would give the appearance that Carmichael, as a member of the subcommittee, agrees with that recommendation.

The subcommittee agreed to put off approving its outreach report until Tuesday, giving some time for Carmichael and the teacher union representatives to come to an agreement on their differences. But it’s clear from Gov. Jim Justice’s proclamation creating the PEIA Taskforce that the only entity that should be submitting a report with recommendation to PEIA is the taskforce itself, not a subcommittee.

The taskforce has a deadline of Dec. 18 to submit a final report on what should be done by PEIA, the governor, and the Legislature. But it seems more and more apparent to me that teachers aren’t going to wait until then.

And that’s a shame. No doubt that PEIA premiums have increased. We’re dealing with 5 percent to 7 percent increases in the inflation rate for drugs and medical services each year. That mean PEIA needs $50 million more every year to keep from raising premiums.

The answer, for most liberal/progressive groups, is to raise a tax. I’ll never understand the logic of raising taxes in a state with a steadily shrinking population. It would seem the better solution would be to find ways to keep the people we have and get more people to come here and grow the tax base.

The same goes for natural gas companies; we need them here. They don’t have to drill here right now. They can drill in Pennsylvania and Ohio and come to us later. Can they afford to pay more? Probably, but they have a responsibility to their stockholders, which aren’t all top hat monocle-wearing Monopoly men. Some are regular people with 401ks and college saving plans relying on these companies to do well, so they can too. Don’t forget about the royalty owners, who also pay taxes in county school districts.

By the way, these natural gas companies can also afford to drill later too. I’d much rather create an environment where these drillers can thrive. I want them to hire West Virginians, but if workers come here from elsewhere, that’s fine too. Hopefully they’ll fall in love with this state, as many have, and make a permanent life here.

But none of that can happen as long as we’re raising the natural gas severance tax rate. It’s one thing to combine that revenue with other tax revenue that comes into our state coffers. Natural gas prices, like most fossil fuel commodities, go up and down. You have good periods, and you have bad. You can weather that as long as you’re not solely dependent on that.

That’s the problem: teachers unions want to tap into that for the $50 million needed annually for PEIA. If you can remember the last five years, then you know the hardships the state faced after the bottom fell out of the coal market. That was just the state as whole. Imagine if coal severance tax revenue had been the only source of funding for the Division of Highways?

But back to the possible strike. Teachers and school service personnel had the sympathy of the public in February. If they strike, especially before the November general election, it’s going to look bad and it’s going to look political. Striking after getting one of the biggest pay raise increases in recent memory is going to look bad. Striking before the PEIA Taskforce releases its recommendations to fix the program is going to look bad.

Instead of a strike that puts our students in limbo, a better solution is to get out the vote in November. If you flip the Legislature, I guarantee you this: You’ll have everyone’s attention.

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