Supporters of West Virginia's teachers unions sit in the House of Delegates gallery on Saturday, as delegates passed a bill to raise insurance premiums for state employees, including teachers. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislature.

Lawmakers finished up their tax cut compromise. Below, a look at the Senate School Choice Committee that hasn’t considered many bills this session.

But first, lawmakers wrapped up a bill that makes sweeping changes to PEIA.

PEIA premium hike goes to governor’s desk

Lawmakers sent a bill to the governor on Monday that will increase insurance costs for the roughly 230,000 public employees that rely on the state’s employee health insurance agency.  Legislators say that the measure is necessary to preserve the financial future of the insurance agency and that the higher costs will be fully offset by recently passed raises and tax cuts.

After concurring with changes made by the House of Delegates, the state Senate voted 26-6 to pass SB 268, a bill that makes sweeping changes to the Public Employees Insurance Agency. The legislation returns to an 80/20 split in insurance costs between employers and employees, a move that will raise premiums by as much as 26%. 

The bill also will require spouses who are eligible for insurance through their own employer to pay to remain on PEIA insurance, reimburse medical providers at 110% of the Medicare rate and change some aspects of how the agency operates. 

Most of the bill will go into effect on July 1. 

The bill prompted over three hours of debate on Saturday, as House delegates sparred over a number of potential amendments to the bill before eventually voting 69-27 in favor of passage. A small group of public employees and union leaders watched closely from the galleries.

Lawmakers supporting the bill argued that the increased costs are necessary to keep the insurance agency solvent.

“Failure to act is going to put us in such a hole three or four years from now that everybody’s going to be even more upset than when their plan is worth nothing, they can’t be seen,” Del. Matthew Rohrbach, R-Cabell, told reporters after the vote. 

But several legislators countered that the bill demanded too much of the public employees who will be saddled with a sudden drastic premium increase, accusing SB 268’s supporters of playing a “shell game” by claiming that the pay raises and tax cuts will negate the pain of the hikes. 

Public employees “were promised that if you stayed here, you and your family would have insurance that was reasonable and good and the state would back you up and take care of you,” said Del. Todd Kirby, R-Raleigh, one of a handful of  Republicans who joined Democrats in speaking against the bill. 

Lawmakers say that bill will save the state $76 million in its first year and more than $500 million by 2027. Gov. Jim Justice has said that he supports the legislation, despite his previous pledge that PEIA premiums would not increase during his time in office.  —P.R. Lockhart

Tax cut compromise passes Legislature 

The House of Delegates voted Saturday to agree with the Senate’s proposal to cut the personal income tax, ending legislative fights over tax policy that have been ongoing for years even as critics contend that the cuts could cause further financial difficulties in the state. 

The tax proposal, presented as a compromise between the Senate’s plan and Gov. Jim Justice’s plan, was first introduced and passed by the Senate late in February. 

The compromise plan, which more closely resembles the Senate’s initial tax proposal than the governor’s proposed 50% income tax cut, would cut the personal income tax by 21.25%, automatically triggering further cuts if certain requirements are met. The tax plan also includes a series of refundable tax credits for some property taxes paid by severely disabled veterans, the vehicle taxes state residents pay to counties, and 50% of the property taxes paid by small businesses in the state.

During debate in the House, several legislators urged passage, saying it will be the largest tax income cut in state history. 

But other lawmakers said that their initial proposal had been watered down too much by the Senate, calling for the House to reject the compromise and fight for a larger tax cut. “I say we refuse to concur and continue the negotiations,” said Del. Evan Worrell, R-Cabell. 

Legislators voted 89-4 in favor of the bill, which they say will return more than $750 million to taxpayers. Supporters also said that the tax cuts, which passed on the same day as the PEIA reform bill and pay raises for state employees, were part of a “three-legged stool” of policy measures that will ultimately benefit people across the state.

But critics argue that the tax cuts will primarily benefit high-income earners and corporations, further shortchanging state services when they need the money the most.  —P.R. Lockhart

School choice committee considers just seven bills

Members of the Senate’s School Choice Committee including chair Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, center. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislature

The Senate’s newest committee, the school choice committee, met today for likely the last time this session. With no bills on the agenda, the committee heard presentations  on a charter school and antisemitism. 

The committee was created after Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, was replaced as the Senate Education Chair and mounted an unsuccessful challenge to replace Sen. Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, as Senate President. But the committee has only considered seven bills across five meetings this session. 

Rucker, who chairs the committee, attributed the committee’s lack of action to a shift in focus in the Legislature from alternative schools to public schools.

— Ian Karbal

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

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