Mike Hall: PEIA conversation starts with Tomblin
By Phil Kabler, The Charleston Gazette-Mail
Teachers, public employees and retirees made clear at Tuesday’s Public Employees Insurance Agency Finance Board public hearing that they want the Legislature to increase funding for PEIA to alleviate a planned $120 million in benefit cuts.
However, Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, R-Putnam, said Wednesday that any decision to increase state funding for PEIA ultimately rests with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, since his line-item veto authority could overrule any legislative initiatives to hike PEIA funding.
“The conversation starts with the governor, when it comes to budgetary issues,” Hall said. “It’s got to be worked out with him.”
Hall noted that, in the current state budget, Tomblin used the line-item veto 46 times to roll back about $11 million of funding increases the Legislature had added to his budget bill, often returning accounts to his original funding proposals.
“We’ll be meeting with the governor and legislative leaders, and see how they want to address it,” Hall said of calls for increased funding for PEIA.
Tomblin, in September, notified the PEIA Finance Board that his proposed 2016-17 state budget will not increase funding for the employers’ share of PEIA premiums over the current $422.4 million appropriation — contributing to a $120 million funding deficit for the plan, which the board has proposed closing by sharply increasing deductibles, co-pays and out-of-pocket maximums for PEIA insurees.
Several speakers Tuesday called for tax increases, with the new revenue to be dedicated to PEIA. Leading those proposals were calls for increasing the state’s tobacco tax and soda pop tax — with the argument that those products adversely affect public health.
However, in a statement issued Wednesday, Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, said he opposes tax increases to fund PEIA.
“The unfortunate situation that our public employees and retirees find themselves in today did not happen overnight, or even within the last 12 months,” Cole said. “It is the direct result of years of neglect and kicking the can down the road by previous leadership.”
Cole added, “Now, once again, West Virginia’s taxpayers are being asked to pay for the sins of the past. The last thing West Virginia families can afford is a tax increase to pay for this mistake.”
Noting that costs of providing health care will only continue to increase, Cole said, “I encourage all parties to come together to find ways to provide our employees and retirees with the health care coverage they deserve without further putting the state into a financial hole from which it cannot escape.”
House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, and House Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.