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W.Va. Facing New Challenge

February 18, 2012
By MIKE MYER , The Intelligencer / Wheeling News-Register

During the past eight months, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and West Virginia legislators have piled up an impressive list of accomplishments. They came up with a fair redistricting plan for the Legislature and U.S. House of Representatives districts. They got past two years of bickering and enacted new rules for the gas and oil drilling industry. They even came up with a plan to pay down a $5 billion unfunded liability. That's just the big stuff. And by the way, they agreed to plans for modest tax relief.

But they haven't touched the elephant in the room.

Beginning during the administration of former Gov. Gaston Caperton, Mountain State lawmakers and governors - in a nonpartisan campaign that did enormous credit to all of them - began paying down state debts instead of building up new ones. Legislators of both parties, who often can't seem to agree on anything, buried the hatchet on that one.

We have come a long, long way.

And it all could be erased beginning next year, through no fault of our own.

Later this spring lawmakers will approve a budget for fiscal 2013. The biggest challenge there will be dealing with an enormous increase in costs for the Medicaid program, which assists low-income West Virginians with health care. It's going to cost somewhere around $260 million more next year. That can be handled by emptying the program's trust fund, which has built up a healthy balance down through the years, and adding around $115 million.

In fiscal 2014, however, the trust fund will be empty and the cost of Medicaid is expected to be about $300 million in excess of what it is now. Meanwhile, federal support for Medicaid will decrease - while the state has to add tens of thousands of new beneficiaries to the program. And yes, even more cost increases are expected after that.

Blame President Barack Obama and Congress for that. West Virginia legislators and Gov. Tomblin can't do a thing about it.

Nor can they stop Obama's war on the coal industry, which is a major part of the state's economy. Severance taxes, primarily from coal, contribute about $440 million a year to the state budget. Cut that by even 25 percent, and there's a problem.

Then there's legalized gambling. Revenue from that source already is slipping. The FY 2013 budget proposal reflects a drop of nearly $150 million in gambling revenue during a two-year period.

Legislators have known about the Medicaid challenge for months. Again, they should be able to handle fiscal 2013 without much trouble. After that, exploding costs for the program and, perhaps less state revenue and a collapsing economy if Obama pursues the war on coal, make the outlook grim.

Trouble is on the horizon. Long-range forecasts call for a budget gap of more than $600 million during the three-year period from FY 2015-17.

The elephant is in the room.

If you're an Ohioan who wants to be part of history, I have two mailing addresses you'll want to clip and save.

Consideration is being given to proposing amendments to the state constitution. That's not a bad idea; the state's basic document of government may benefit from a bit of updating.

To that end, an Ohio Constitutional Modernization Commission is being formed. It will have 20 members - and anyone who's interested is welcome to apply. About 150 people already have submitted applications.

If you're interested - and bear in mind work on the commission will be demanding - here's how to apply:

Send cover letters and resumes to both co-chairmen of the commission: Speaker William G. Batchelder, 77 S. High Street, 14th Floor, Columbus, OH 43215 and State Rep. Vernon Sykes, 77 S. High Street, 10th Floor, Columbus, OH 43215.

The deadline for applications is Feb. 29.

Myer can be reached via e-mail at

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