It’s getting harder for one group of West Virginians to stay positive as state legislators fail to find a way to break the state’s $270 million budget stalemate.
After more than a week in special session, neither legislators nor Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin can say whether a new budget will be passed by July 1, when the new fiscal year begins. And that may mean a state government shutdown.
And if the state government does shut down, one group of West Virginians will be disproportionally effected: state employees.
They stands to lose the most, even if they only temporarily lose their jobs, because of the rising cost of medical insurance due to proposed cuts to the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA).
Dedicated staffers are still on the job despite the limbo in Charleston, but morale is low and many can’t believe that shutting down state government is even an option.
“It is hard because we feel like an obvious target, because one of the first issues that came up in relation to the budget shortfall was the PEIA crisis. And that affects us most immediately and most personally,” said a state employee who agreed to speak on the basis of anonymity.
“For years and years, the legislature held off on granting pay raises in return for maintaining our PEIA benefits, but those times are evidently gone,” the employee said.
There is also some resentment against lawmakers as the clock continues to tick.
“If we can do our job, why aren’t they doing their job by passing a budget?” the employee said.
Last fall the PEIA board cut $120 million in benefits for employees and retirees. Beginning July 1 that means an $82.96 million reduction for active employees and retiree benefits being cut by $40.99 million, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Cost savings would also be achieved by higher deductibles and out-of-pocket expenses.
In addition to these rising costs, there’s still no budget as the new fiscal year gets closer.
Tomblin’s introduction of a furlough bill outlining how the state would operate if workers are off the job doesn’t offer many details by design, communications director Chris Stadelman told us.
“The goal of the bill is to give the governor flexibility to keep government operating… So it doesn’t actually identify specific agencies,” he said.
The furlough bill was sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee and discussed in detail at one meeting, but it has not been placed on the agenda again for future discussion.
Another issue: Will furloughed employees continue to accrue benefits while off the job? No formal internal talks have yet been held on it, Stadelman said.
The bill does state that a decision on employee pay—whether it would be “allocated over the balance of the fiscal year rather than solely in the pay period when the furlough occurs”—would be addressed by an executive order if the situation gets to that point.
“It means we would have the option of paying people in whatever way would make the most sense. I really can’t get into specifics because it would be part of the executive order that our legal team would draft,” he said.
Tomblin was disappointed the tobacco tax didn’t pass, and there is no quick fix in sight, he said.
“I think it’s fair to say we are still trying to figure out what that next plan may look like. The governor does not believe the budget should be balanced with one-time monies, which would include sweeps of accounts and/or the Rainy Day fund. Instead we need something that is structurally sound going forward and using one-time money doesn’t create that situation,” he said.
Stadelman said there have not been any calls from state workers upset about the possible furloughs. Employees have been much more vocal about their PEIA worries, he said.
Sen. Bob Beach, D-Monongalia, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, said he and other legislators were satisfied with the meeting discussion. But he also believes the bill needs additional study and work before it could be passed.
“And somewhere along the line there is the question of whether or not it is constitutional to do this,” he said.
How and when furloughed employees will be paid is an important issue, he said.
“It is important to have some kind of furlough bill in place because without that you can’t have furloughs, only terminations,” he said.
Overall, legislators are back to square one due to their inability to find common ground with Republicans who oppose any tax increases, he said.
“The wheels fell off the bus, and we’re back at the starting point again,” he said.
Del. Stephen Skinner (D-Jefferson) said he’s heard from many upset constituents – especially state police, teachers and others who believe what’s happening to higher premiums for their PEIA coverage equals a pay cut.
“The ones who really understand what is going on are extremely upset. You can look back at the comments back last summer when PEIA had to go ahead and put out its drastic cuts. We haven’t found a way to avoid that board’s actions. People last summer were mad, imagine how they are going to be this year,” he said.Proposed cuts haven’t been fair so far, he said.
“I think that public employees and every day consumers are getting the brunt of the budget crisis. This really should be a shared sacrifice,” he said.
Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, Judiciary Committee chair, could not be reached for comment