March 01, 2014

A good kind of zombie

The WV legislature has a week to go, and it promises to be quite a week. One pleasant surprise this time around is the emergence of what I thought was a long-dead bill back into the game.

For several years, I worked with friends at the WV Center on Budget and Policy et al to generate interest in  voluntary employee retirement accounts (VERA) for workers who don't have employer provided pensions. These would involve payroll deductions into an account managed by the WV Treasurer's Office, which already does something similar with college savings. Workers could then build assets for retirement and would keep the account if they moved from job to job.

After a while, we started calling it Dear Old Aunt Vera. We seemed to generate a little bit of traction several years back, but then it seemed to fizzle out.

This year, however, Aunt Vera came back from the dead. The state AARP and their allies managed to move a VERA bill through the WV House of Delegates. Yesterday, it cleared the Pensions Committee in the state Senate. Next stop is Finance, which is often where good bills go to die.

Although such a program would be a win all the way around, several business groups oppose the measure, claiming it would put the government in competition with private business. You could smell the money in the committee meeting. Their claims, however, are bogus. If financial businesses were really filling that niche, half our workers wouldn't be without any kind of retirement savings.

Secondly, and snarkily, if government is as inefficient and incapable of doing anything, what are these guys so scared of?

February 28, 2014

Annals of weirdness

With just over a week to go at the WV legislature, things are getting weirder and weirder. Yesterday, Republicans on the House Health Committee acted in concert to try to kill an innocuous bill, Move to Improve, which would have promoted physical activity in public schools. Apparently, exercise is socialistic. Who knew?

The sad part is that they came within one vote of doing it, largely because some Democrats on the committee felt they had more important places to be

I was particularly disappointed that one of my Republican delegates, Carol Miller, voted against Move to Improve as well, after she emailed me saying "who could object to children getting exercise?" I guess now we know the answer to that rhetorical question.

It will be interesting to see if some of these votes change if and when the measure hits the floor.

February 26, 2014

Early childhood: missed opportunities

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff mentioned West Virginia last weekend in a column highlighting the importance of early childhood programs as a means of fighting poverty. As it happens, preserving funding for such programs is one of the top priority items for AFSC in WV and for our allies in the Our Children Our Future Campaign to End Child Poverty.

Ironically, last year, Gov. Tomblin appointed a task force to look at early childhood programs. The group recommended a statewide expansion of home visiting programs over several years. Instead, the programs were targeted for a 25 percent budget cut in the governor's budget...mostly to pay for tax cuts for corporations.

However, our friends at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, had this to say about poverty factors that Kristoff minimizes. It's worth a look. One can be for expanded early childhood programs without ignoring the big picture.

February 24, 2014

Getting used to it

For all the overheated rhetoric, it looks like governors across the political spectrum are getting used to the Affordable Care Act. According to AP,

"...governors from both parties say a full repeal of the law would be complicated at best, if not impossible, as states move forward with implementation and begin covering millions of people--both by expanding Medicaid rolls for lower-income residents or through state or federal exchanges that offer federal subsidies to those who qualify."

Meanwhile in West Virginia, the Charleston Gazette reported that "between the increase in private insurance enrollment and new enrollment in the state's Medicaid expansion, the number of uninsured West Virginians has dropped from 13.5 percent to 4.2 percent of the population." In fact, West Virginia leads the nation in per capita Medicaid enrollment.

That is a big deal.

ONE FOR THE ROAD. The rational animal never lived round here.


February 23, 2014

Who knows?

With a little bit less than two weeks to go at the WV legislature, things could break either way. This could be a good year for kids and working families...or not. At this point, several things are still in play but could be lost in the fog and confusion of the last chaotic days.

The minimum wage passed the house and needs to be reconciled with the senate version. Fast food types, McDonald's' in particular, are trying to gut the bill. I hope the senate holds the line. Worst case would be changing definitions so that the increase would be meaningless.

The Future Fund passed the senate unanimously. It faces an uncertain future in the house due to rivalry and budget concerns, even though the FF wouldn't kick in for a couple of years, when the state's budget woes will have leveled off.

Speaking of the budget, it's not clear at this point whether proposed cuts to domestic violence and early childhood programs will be reversed.

The physical activity bill, Move to Improve, is headed to the house and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act is awaiting action in the senate.

Two old bills that I've supported in the past but just about gave up on showed unexpected life. One is a reform to unemployment insurance which allows companies to reduce hours instead of jobs and lets workers draw benefits for the lost wages. Another is a voluntary retirement account bill which would allow workers who don't have pensions to build assets towards retirement. Both of these miraculously rose from the grave and made it through the house.

One thing's for sure. The next 13 days are gonna be crazy.