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Prolonging 'the streak'

January 12, 1999

Will West Virginia lawmakers keep their no-new-taxes streak alive for a sixth straight year? That's the top issue concerning legislators as they get ready to begin the 1999 legislative session, according to an Associated Press survey. By all indications, it won't be an easy task.

Without raising taxes, lawmakers will have to find $40 million in new money to fund raises they've already promised to state employees and teachers. They must also find a way to cut costs for the Public Employees Insurance Agency, which provides health care services, and has a projected deficit of $48.5 million.

Cutting that deficit would require delivering more care through health-maintenance organizations, which are struggling to maintain their profitability by increasing deductibles and other fees. Some employees have complained that they may get a raise from the state, only to pay it out again in health-care costs.

The state also faces the need to pay off a $3.1 billion deficit in the teachers' retirement system and a $1.9 billion deficit in the workers' compensation system.

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And then there's economic development, for which lawmakers believe that a multi-billion regional airport in southwestern West Virginia is essential.

If lawmakers don't raise taxes, the alternatives are few and far between. The legislature could allow the coal companies to accelerate the process of mining by mountaintop removal. But that process is already controversial, with some calling for additional environmental protection for the streams and hollows in areas where it's being used.

And there's always gambling, touted as a painless way to raise revenue, but mistrusted by those who realize that a percentage of average citizens will become addicted, adding to the state's social-service costs.

We recommend lawmakers continue the process they've already begun, explaining to citizens the expenses the legislature faces and potential revenue sources to cover them. In the end, taxpayers may agree that the state's fiscal health is more important than continuing the no-tax streak.

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