West Virginia editorial roundup
Posted January 11
Recent editorials from West Virginia newspapers:
The Charleston Gazette-Mail on a statewide soda tax:
People agree to tax themselves to pay for things they need in common but cannot afford to provide individually. This is true from the tiniest dues-paying organization up through local, state and national governments. Think of building roads, staffing schools or maintaining an army.
By raising prices, taxes can also make certain purchases less attractive or more difficult to afford for people with low incomes. That's one reason people generally don't like to tax food, a necessity, but better tolerate taxes on things like tobacco and liquor.
In Sunday's Gazette-Mail, Dr. Jamie Jeffrey made the case for increasing the state's tax on another luxury that has public health consequences — sugary drinks, including soft drinks.
West Virginia's budget shortfall is well-known, and any increase in revenue would help the new governor and Legislature solve that problem.
But more state revenue, while needed, is not even the best reason to raises taxes on soft drinks.
The best reason is the health of West Virginians, starting with the youngest ones.
As Dr. Jeffrey pointed out, she and her colleagues continue to see children with rapid weight gain, insulin resistance, high triglycerides and a dark rash around the neck and knuckles that can be a sign of diabetes. Children go on to develop diabetes and fatty liver disease, starting as young as 6. They are usually diagnosed around age 11.
Otherwise healthy children whose worst worries should be skinned knees and whether they will get a shot at the doctor's office, are instead dealing with old-age diseases — diabetes, high blood pressure, sleep apnea — and all the strain and age those conditions put on their young bodies.
Any number of highly processed, quickly digested carbohydrates contribute to these conditions, but 46 percent of calories from added sugars in American diets come from sugary drinks, Dr. Jeffrey writes. An effort aimed at reducing that number could make a big difference.
Increasingly, people understand that different foods behave differently in the body. Sugary drinks, for example, cause a spike in blood sugar, leading to an exaggerated insulin response, setting up a pattern that leads to diabetes.
Even artificially sweetened drinks are no answer, as a healthy body learns through experience how much insulin is needed to process various foods and drinks. Recent research suggests that sweetened drinks that deliver no calories can "derange" the metabolism — setting the body up for the very weight gain and metabolic disease that it was trying to avoid by choosing the sugar-free option.
A better approach is to consume less, and a tax increase could help. A penny-per-ounce tax in Berkeley, California, reduced consumption by 21 percent in low-income neighborhoods, Dr. Jeffrey writes. People drank more water.
West Virginia might amplify the effectiveness of such a tax increase with a well-conceived public information campaign to go with it. It could be motivating for people to be reminded how sugary drinks damage their children's health, and how small changes add up to big differences over time.
What parent doesn't want to do better for their kids — especially when they have confidence that what they are doing makes a difference?
A well-crafted tax on sugary drinks would benefit West Virginia in multiple ways, the most important being to advance the health of West Virginia children.
The Inter-Mountain of Elkins on how state legislators should prioritize spending:
Some West Virginia legislators seem to have decided already that they have no option but to increase taxes if they are to balance the state budget.
But the very revenue reports they point to in support of that contention are evidence West Virginians are struggling, many of them more than state government.
It has been pointed out that lagging revenue is to blame for budget woes. Of particular concern has been the severance tax.
After the first five months of the fiscal year, that tax had brought in about $13.4 million less than had been budgeted. But even worse performances were turned in by the personal income tax, at $43.6 million below estimates, and the sales tax, at $36.2 million under projections. Those are broad indicators of how the state's economy — West Virginia families and businesses — are doing.
Revenue Secretary Bob Kiss already has told legislators to expect a $400 million gap between projected spending and expected revenue for the coming fiscal year. That has led some to throw up their hands and decide it is impossible to reduce more state spending. Tax increases, possibly disguised as measures to "eliminate exemptions" from current taxes, are being considered.
To his enormous credit, Gov.-elect Jim Justice is just saying no. "I don't think there is any way in the world that you can raise taxes on our people," he told a reporter.
State Senate President-elect Mitch Carmichael agrees. "The people of West Virginia are struggling financially and cannot endure additional tax burdens to prop up government. Just as each family is faced with difficult financial choices when money is scarce, our state government must do the same," added Carmichael, R- Jackson.
Government provides a variety of essential services, of course. All Mountain State residents depend on them, to greater or lesser extents.
But before considering tax increases, Justice and lawmakers simply must prioritize spending and ensure that every possible efficiency has been achieved in government.
It is a classic chicken-and-egg question: Whose welfare comes first? State government's — or that of the people it is supposed to be serving.
The Huntington Herald Dispatch on the state's spending:
West Virginia legislative auditors are once again delving into the state's handling of its vehicle fleet and, like before, they raise serious questions about whether the state is wasting money.
The focus in the most recent audit - presented this week to lawmakers — was the Division of Corrections. The basic question put before auditors to explore was why the division has 309 vehicles and whether that total is justified. The audit suggests that total of vehicles is not necessary.
The auditors found, for example, that 115 of those vehicles do not meet the state mandate that requires vehicles be driven at least 1,100 miles a month — a requirement no doubt inserted in legislative rules to avoid agencies having unnecessary vehicles. An exemption is required for vehicles that don't meet that benchmark, but no exemptions have been sought or given for those vehicles, the auditors determined. The cost to taxpayers for those "underused" vehicles: $523,000 annually in lease payments, operating costs and administration fees.
The report also questioned why 19 vehicles were assigned to high-level officials, including the commissioner, who commute in them and historically have never responded to emergencies. According to the audit, the state can save up to $173,000 in monthly lease payments by having those officials drive their own cars or take vehicles from the division's car pool.
The auditors also said they believe the division is not correctly reporting officials' and employees' use of these cars to commute as taxable fringe benefits.
In a separate report unrelated to the Division of Corrections and the state's vehicle fleet, the auditors said the state sometimes paid vendors for taking bodies to wrong locations and paid excessive mileage reimbursement and additional fees for transporting two or more bodies together. Overall, they concluded, the Office of Chief Medical Examiner overpaid transporters $217,597 over five years.
Together, those two audit reports suggest that nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars could be saved annually if the Division of Corrections better controlled its vehicle fleet and the medical examiner's office kept a more accurate handle on its transport costs.
Keeping a tight rein on expenses should be the norm in all levels of government, but it is especially important in West Virginia's case considering its ongoing budget crisis. Revenue Secretary Bob Kiss told lawmakers Monday that budget revenues for the first six months of the fiscal year already are nearly $100 million below projections. And that's separate from the projected $400 million deficit the state faces for the next budget year that begins July 1.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and many lawmakers said last year when dealing with the state's financial problems that structural changes are needed to get the state's budget back on track. Meanwhile, it's also important for state agencies to tightly control expenses, whether it's eliminating bloated vehicle fleets or ensuring that contractors aren't paid more than they're due.