News

Overview

The Thrasher Group

September 1, 2011 - Volume 31 Issue 21

 

 

“Journalism is literature in a hurry.” – Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), British poet and cultural critic.

By Jim Wallace

Many of the items on agendas for legislative interim meetings for August have been put off until September or later, because the Legislature’s special session on redistricting got in the way. The August interim meetings that went on as scheduled were in the minority. More meetings were cancelled, often at short notice, because lawmakers were diverted into trying to figure out how to redraw districts for the House of Delegates, the state Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives.

Among the August meetings that were canceled were those for the Legislative Oversight Commission on Education Accountability, including one at which state Supt. Jorea Marple was scheduled to make a presentation.

As it turned out, the Legislature had to hold a second special session to fix the House of Delegates’ redistricting bill, which acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin had to veto because of errors in it. The mistakes included putting certain voters in Kanawha County into two different districts and the same type of problem in Morgan County. The mistakes stemmed from amendments made on the House floor late in the debate over the bill.

The redistricting of the House of Delegates was the most controversial of the three bills, because many people wanted the House to abandon its long-standing practice of having multi-member districts. The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, the Republican Party and some Democrats advocated all along for 100 single-member districts. The plan the Legislature approved would increase the number of single-member districts from 36 to 47, but a majority of delegates would still represent districts with two or more members. Altogether, the House would have 40 members from two-member or three-member districts, eight from two four-member districts and five from a five-member district. 

Several persons are threatening a lawsuit to force the Legislature to adopt single-member districts in the House. Some displeasure with the House redistricting plan stems from the way it divides certain counties, such as Putnam and Raleigh, so that parts of those counties are attached to districts that include parts of other counties.

So far, there have been fewer complaints about redistricting plans for the state Senate and for the three congressional districts. There were attempts in the Senate – mainly by Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, and Sen. Herb Snyder, D-Jefferson – to make a big realignment in the congressional districts. Their plans would have divided the First District and the Second District along a north-south line instead of the current division along an east-west line. Instead, the Legislature simply moved Mason County from the Second District into the Third District.

The approved plan avoids putting First District Rep. David McKinley and Second District Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, both Republicans, into the same district. But Unger has warned that the districts fail to meet constitutional requirements for compactness, which could make the plan vulnerable to a legal challenge. The Second District still runs in a narrow band from the Ohio River to the west to the Potomac River to the east.

 

By Jim Wallace

The Legislature is looking for ways to get more schools involved in recycling efforts. Two experts in the field gave members of Education Subcommittee A suggestions during their August meeting.

Greg Sayre, executive director of West Virginia Association of Professional Recyclers, told them the first step is to get a good handle on what current recycling activities are, because they vary across the state. He said most are involved in aluminum can collection, because it is the most valuable part of the waste stream.

“It’s the easiest to sell,” Sayre said. “There are more outlets. There are more local recyclers out there. It’s the best way for a school or school group to make a few hundred dollars to a few thousand dollars in a short period of time for some sort of school-related activity.”

When schools get involved in recycling, he said, sometimes parent-teacher organizations do it, and sometimes student organizations do it.

Sayre said one long-established effort is the Great Paper Chase in Taylor County. He said it began in 1993 after the head of the local trash company became upset that the City of Grafton could not afford to open a swimming pool for kids, so he decided to come up with a program for students to make money.

“Next to aluminum cans, office paper is the most valuable item that probably a school would generate.” – Greg Sayre of Association of Professional Recyclers

“Next to aluminum cans, office paper is the most valuable item that probably a school would generate,” Sayre said.

In Taylor County, the trash company official set up a program in the schools for the collection of office paper, he said. His company paid $50 per ton, the local scrap dealer agreed to match that, and other local businesses made smaller donations. In the end, more money was pledged for the collection of paper than what the paper was worth, Sayre said. The program became a 501(c)(3) organization and makes $10,000 to $15,000 a year for the schools, he said. The schools have a two-page grant form and a local committee to review those forms.

Sayre said a recycling program began in Putnam County five years ago when West Virginia Cash and Recyclables entered into an agreement with the 4-H Club. Containers are distributed around the county. The recycler picks up and sells the paper collected in them. Because 4-H is tax exempt, there is a 40 percent tax credit for donations to the program, Sayre said.

“We’ve generated value from a product that was not valuable.” – Greg Sayre

“This program has sent 200 Putnam County kids to 4-H camp free of charge,” he said. “There is a $75,000 scholarship up at WVU for graduating Putnam County seniors, and it is accruing at a rate of $25,000-$30,000 a year, all based upon just newspaper.”

Those programs were successful because they are tied to tax incentives, Sayre said.

“We’ve generated value from a product that was not valuable,” he said. “It’s not necessarily related to the school, but it’s something our school system has sort of endorsed.”

Sayre gave the lawmakers these recommendations for what schools should do to start recycling programs:

  • Determine the availability of local recycling services. Some counties – Grant, Hardy, Webster, Pendleton and Doddridge – don’t have outlets, so they might have to look to other counties. Contact your solid waste authority, garbage company and local recycler.
  • The collection system could be designed just for the schools or for the general public to participate. That has a big bearing on the cost of the program, what is collected and how much is collected.
  • Containers are needed at every school.  What you collect determines the types of containers and how many. You also must determine how to store recyclable items. Pop bottles and cans often have something left in them.  Containers cost $3,000 to $5,000 per school, inside and outside.
  • Figure out what to during the summertime when school is not in session.
  • Transportation cost. That’s a key factor, because transportation costs could eat up all of the profit of the program. “If you’re driving much further to the recycling center than you’re driving to the landfill, there’s always the possibility that your recycling program is actually going to cost more than your disposal program.”
  • Accountability is the biggest problem. If a person responsible for the program leaves the school, the program could go to pot. Greenbrier County struggled with recycling for more than a decade until the school system appropriated $600 for a recycling coordinator in each school. That provides a contact person. The program is doing well now.

Sayre told the committee it’s important to figure out what the goals are. He said the Caperton administration paid a lot of money to develop a recycling curriculum, but it was never adopted. He added that before schools adopt recycling programs, they should consider what the teaching aspects of those programs are.

 

Raleigh County’s program has grown.

James Allen of the Raleigh County Solid Waste Authority told the committee that his organization’s board of directors has become very passionate about recycling in the schools.

“Our program has been very instrumental in Raleigh County and now has gone tremendously, spreading out into Fayette County and spreading out into Wyoming County,” he said. The program now has two fulltime educators and Kirby, the robot, which goes statewide to promote recycling, he said.

Since the program started in 2000, it has diverted 3,087 tons of recyclables from landfills, and schools have earned $156,117.60, Allen said.

But he added that, for recycling to work, there must be a “golden carrot.” His program put recycling boxes at every school. They are not only school recycling sites but also community drop-off centers, he said, and communities compete with each other. Allen said the program has solicited corporate sponsors, and at the end of each year, it presents a trophy to the top school.

But he also said the Solid Waste Authority subsidizes the recycling program by about $350,000 to $400,000 a year, and it’s a very intensive program.

“We’re constantly going out and searching new markets and finding out availability of selling that product,” Allen said.

One of the biggest issues is transportation, getting the product brought to the recycling center, he said. Using a grant from the Department of Environmental Protection, the authority invested in a series of boxes that are placed at every school. All of the recyclables are comingled, he said, so they must be sorted at the authority’s facility.

Sen. Richard Browning, D-Wyoming, asked where the authority gets the money for the recycling program. Allen responded that the authority is mandated to recycle, so it just subsidizes the program.

“We consider this as a service to our community. Once we’ve given that to them, we can’t take it away from them.” – James Allen of Raleigh County Solid Waste Authority

“We consider this as a service to our community,” he said. “Once we’ve given that to them, we can’t take it away from them.”

Allen added that recycling markets are very volatile, but they are coming back up.

 

 

 

By Jim Wallace

The director of the Public Employees Insurance Agency has told lawmakers that his agency is doing well, but it faces some big challenges in the months ahead.

PEIA Director Ted Cheatham also told members of the Select Committee on PEIA, Seniors and Long-Term Care at their August meeting that West Virginia’s OPEB liability is now estimated at $9.3 billion for the current fiscal year, up from $8 billion last year. The liability for OPEB – other post-employment benefits – largely represents health care benefits promised to current and future retirees from public sector jobs.

“PEIA is in pretty good shape overall.” – PEIA Director Ted Cheatham

“PEIA is in pretty good shape overall,” Cheatham said. “Retiree benefit structure is richer and premiums are lower than they were when I started at PEIA eight years ago. They have lower deductibles. They have a lower out-of-pocket [expense]. They have a better assistance program.”

Active employees also have done well with a couple of years of no premium increases, he said. Meanwhile, the agency has kept reserves in the active trust fund at 13 percent to 15 percent and accrued more than $450 million in the Retiree Health Benefits Trust Fund, Cheatham said.

However, he said, PEIA probably will have to increase premiums for the fiscal year beginning next July by 9.5 percent for employers and 12.4 percent for employees. Cheatham explained part of the difference in the percentages stems from an audit to determine if all of the spouses and dependents claimed by members were truly eligible. 

“That shifted a lot of people around the tiers, which shifted the premium structure at PEIA to the tune of about $15-to-$20 million,” he said. In addition, Cheatham said, the figures are affected by discounts provided to people who participate in the Improve Your Score program by getting health screenings to determine their cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure levels and waist circumferences and to people who sign advance directives. About half of the people did not participate and didn’t get discounts, so that has shifted some tiers and the money taken in, he said.

In addition, the plan is getting ready to start covering autism next year in compliance with a new state law. “If we lose our grandfathering status, there’s a potential for other things we might have to pay for as well,” Cheatham added. 

PEIA officials are still working on the numbers for the next fiscal year, he said, but the Office of Budget has indicated the administration will provide a 4 percent increase in funding for the employer premiums state agencies must pay. That would leave a shortfall of 5.5 percent, Cheatham said, but he added, “I’m hoping it will be something less than that.” However, a cut in benefits might be necessary, he said.

On the OPEB liability, now estimated at $9.3 billion, the Legislature and the administration have been working on proposals to pay it down. PEIA has been trying to keep it from getting too much larger by putting into a fund pay-as-you-go – or pay-go – money to account for the ongoing OPEB costs attributed to current workers. Cheatham told the committee that if the pay-go remains flat, all of the increased costs for the retiree benefit plan will fall on the retirees. But he said if the agency can add $10 million to the pay-go, which would raise it from $150 million to $160 million, the retiree increase could be cut almost in half and the rates for active employees could be lower by 1.7 percent.

Cheatham said it will be up to the PEIA Finance Board this fall to decide what to do, how much to put into pay-go and what benefit changes are needed to maintain the 80-20 premium split mandated by law. That means that 80 percent of premiums for employees come from the agencies employing them while the other 20 percent comes from the employees themselves.

Upon questioning by lawmakers, Cheatham said PEIA is constantly looking at ways to save money. For example, he said, having many retirees in the Medicare Advantage program still provides PEIA with a benefit of about $10 million, but the agency is considering going self-funded next year to save another 5 percent.

“We are out to bid for Medicare Advantage for July 1, 2012, to see if we can get some better pricing, and we’re going to combine the medical and pharmacy again,” Cheatham said. But he said that, if the Medicare Advantage program becomes actuarially unsound, PEIA will get out of the program.

“We’re $20 million ahead of the plan on the active side, and we’re about $26 million ahead of the plan on the retirees’ side.” – Ted Cheatham

Cheatham said PEIA did “extremely well” on its budgeting for the last fiscal year. “We’re $20 million ahead of the plan on the active side, and we’re about $26 million ahead of the plan on the retirees’ side,” he said. “To help stabilize rates, we’ve been spending down reserve on the active side. Because we had some good years, we’d been building up the reserve. We’ve been paying out that reserve to keep from giving big rates increases. You know as well as I do, if we need $10 this year and subsidize it with $2, and next year we need $12, that’s a $4 gap not a $2 gap. It’s 40 percent, not 20 percent. That’s what’s going on here.”

Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha, asked if Cheatham favors an increase in the cigarette tax.

“Studies show the No. 1 way to reduce smoking rates is to increase the cost of cigarettes,” he replied. “It works more efficiently than any other program out there.”

Cheatham said PEIA members have a tobacco use rate of about 26 percent, which has been marginally decreasing from about 27-28 percent a few years ago. Members get a $25 discount for single coverage and $50 discount for family coverage for not smoking, he said.