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West Virginia lawmakers press ahead on top issues

February 27, 2003

Like a grocery shopper rushing to get a gallon of milk before the next snowstorm hits, the West Virginia Legislature has moved the 2003 session's agenda forward with a sense of urgency unmatched in recent years. Here's hoping lawmakers can follow through on the action taken so far.

Here's a quick recap:

- House and Senate malpractice bills were set to go to a joint conference committee Wednesday. One major problem is a Senate provision that would require insurers who cover one class of physicians to cover all doctors in the state, regardless of their specialty. House leaders are also concerned that another Senate provision might reduce the amount of Medicaid cash the state gets from the federal government. House Speaker Bob Kiss predicts a compromise by week's end, but he may be overly optimistic

- To raise $110 million for the state's Medicaid program and add funds for its medical schools, lawmakers seem ready to up cigarette taxes from 17 to 55 cents per pack and the tax on sodas from 1 to 5 cents a can.

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The soda tax, which Gov. Bob Wise is not backing, would provide $35 million for medical schools, $5 million to Medicaid and $20 million to other, as-yet unspecified programs. This bill will have a better chance if the taxpayers know where that cash is going.

- The state Senate has passed a plan to sell $3.9 billion in bonds to pay off the state's pension debt. As proposed, the bonds would be issued as rates that are now at a 40-year low. Proceeds would be invested and as long as the rate of returns on investments exceed the interest rate on the bonds, the state should profit.

One hitch: The state treasurer and the state auditor are both opposed, saying the measure requires a popular vote.

With all these measures, there will be legitimate arguments about the details. But what citizens should recognize now is that lawmakers are engaged in the process and acknowledging the painful truth that when there are bills to be paid, the money has to come from somewhere.

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