Del. Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, introduced an amendment to remove a $105 million incentive for a Weirton battery plant that was voted down. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography.

Good evening, it’s Thursday.

As West Virginia’s public health insurance agency faces a financial crisis, today we got the first look at how lawmakers plan to address it. Also, why the age to buy tobacco is still 18 in West Virginia law. 

But first, an economic incentive for a project in Hancock County has cleared a major hurdle.

Lawmakers vote for $105 million incentive for Weirton battery factory

Del. Bill Anderson, R-Wood, speaks on the House floor on Thursday. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography.

After 45 minutes of spirited debate, West Virginia delegates voted down an amendment to deny funding for a battery plant on the former site of Weirton Steel that’s expected to create 750 jobs.

The $105 million in funding for Form Energy was included in an appropriations bill that was up to be amended before the full House today and a vote on passage will be tomorrow. If approved by the Senate, it will act as an incentive for the company to build a plant in the Northern Panhandle; according to the Office of Economic Development, the state’s money will only be used once the company invests $50 million of its own and creates 200 jobs.

The debate over the funding, rather than driven by an opposition to corporate handouts, was fueled by disagreements over Form Energy’s stated opposition to fossil fuels. 

“The debate in this chamber today sends out a message throughout this country,” said Energy Committee Chair Del. Bill Anderson, R-Wood. “And that message is: Is West Virginia willing to embrace the future while respecting the past?”

Form Energy is funded by liberal billionaire Bill Gates, and its CEO is a strong advocate for the use of renewable energy sources over fossil fuels. Its iron-air batteries are theoretically more sustainable than traditional lithium batteries.

Anderson noted that he is supportive of the coal industry, but that the state needs to embrace the larger trend towards alternative fuel and energy sources.

25 members voted for the amendment introduced by Del. Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock, to deny the funds for the deal.  —Ian Karbal

PEIA proposal would change dependent benefits

PEIA Director Jason Haught speaks to lawmakers last year. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography.

Lawmakers today provided the public with the first real sense of how they plan to address the looming financial crisis for the Public Employees Insurance Agency. 

Members of the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee advanced a committee substitute for SB 268, which changes not only how some parts of the state insurance agency operates, but also changes some benefits available to insurees. Most notably, the bill would remove many employed spouses eligible for their own insurance from PEIA coverage, unless they choose to pay premiums to be added onto a plan.

The bill would also set the minimum reimbursement rates for all providers at 110% of the Medicare rate. The proposal also requires the state to return to an 80/20 split in insurance costs between employers and employees by the end of this fiscal year, and would commission an actuarial study to look for long-term solutions to stabilize the agency’s finances.  

Members of the committee argued that the changes are necessary to preserve PEIA, which had a $92 million deficit in 2022 and faces a projected $376 million shortfall by 2027.

“Something has to happen for us to be able to continue to prove health insurance to our state employees,” said Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, adding that because of how insurance costs work, the agency requires an “unsustainable” constant increase in revenue. 

But the changes are likely to be unpopular among the 200,000 state employees who get their insurance through the program. This includes public school teachers, who went on strike in 2018 over proposed changes to benefits. Legislators previously abandoned an effort to change PEIA’s spousal coverage in 2020 over concerns that it could trigger another strike.—P.R. Lockhart

The national age to buy tobacco is 21. West Virginia law still says 18

Sen. Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, speaks on the Senate floor. He has is the lead sponsor of a bill to raise the age to buy tobacco in West Virginia to 21. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography.

West Virginia has a smoking problem.

22% of adults smoke and 40% of high schoolers use tobacco, according to data from the American Lung Association released last month. West Virginia’s annual report card from the association was dire: over five categories, the state received four Fs and one D.

To some, this is at least partially attributable to current state policies.

“Nearly all, if not all, of my lung cancer patients have a history of smoking or current smokers,” said Robert Herron, thoracic surgeon at WVU Medicine Wheeling Hospital. “If you cut funding for tobacco cessation…that definitely plays a role in our high ratio of adults who smoke here.”

In 2021, the state spent $445,000 on tobacco control efforts, down from $5 million in the mid 2000s. That’s just 1.6% of what the CDC recommends West Virginia spend on restricting tobacco sales and helping people quit.

Another factor that impacts tobacco use rates is the state’s age policy. Despite a 2019 federal change to raise the minimum age to buy tobacco to 21, West Virginia has yet to change its laws and allows sales to anyone over 18. Every bordering state has passed laws to match the federal government. 

“We’re this hole in the middle that hasn’t ratified this legislation,” said Greg Puckett, a Mercer County Commissioner and the director of a Family Resource Network.

Last week, the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee heard and approved a bill that would raise West Virginia’s minimum tobacco purchase age to 21 to match federal law. If codified, it would also make it a crime to smoke in a vehicle with a child under 17 present.

It’s not the first time state lawmakers have tried to sync up with the federal law; bill sponsor Sen. Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, led a similar effort in 2019. 

And even if the age is raised in West Virginia, Herron believes the Legislature should do more to reduce smoking rates. He suggested strategies like investing in programs to help people quit smoking, making lung cancer screenings easier to access and promoting anti-tobacco educational materials.

“Whatever it takes to fund [these] programs would be a good starting point,” Herron said.

–Allen Siegler

Ian Karbal is a Report for America corps member, and the state government watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.

P.R. Lockhart is Mountain State Spotlight's Economic Development Reporter.

Allen Siegler is the public health reporter for Mountain State Spotlight. He can be reached at (681) 317-7571.