Point the Boat in the Right Direction: Fully Fund PEIA

Public employees are the backbone of a functioning society. Society crumbles without people in our communities that are dedicated to public service. We wouldn’t have public schools, EMS services, State Troopers, Judges, and service personnel that keep the state firing on all cylinders. West Virginia’s public employees have had languishing benefits and stagnating wages for far too long. The hottest hot button issue as of late has been the underfunding of the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA). Our state’s public employees must be fairly compensated for their work, as well as their much deserved—and desperately needed—retirement. With the vast wealth of resources in our state, wage stagnation is unacceptable. It will only contribute to further erosion of the quality of West Virginia’s public services.

PEIA at the Frontline

I’m endorsed by nurses, state troopers, teachers, coal miners, pipefitters, school service personnel, electricians, and laborers. They are all brutally aware of the attacks being waged on their livelihoods by legislators in Charleston. Last year, the funding of PEIA was brought to the forefront of state politics because of the teacher’s movement that sparked solidarity in many other states across the country. Every county in the state made its collective voice heard, eventually convincing the legislature and Governor Justice to pass legislation that increased pay for West Virginia’s teachers and other public employees. Would they have done that if teachers, school service personnel, and everyday people from all over West Virginia hadn’t filled the capital, guided by their AFT, WVEA and WVSSPA Union leaders? I think we all know the answer to that question.

By demanding that our elected officials prioritize their constituents and not just Big Business, we started something huge, just like West Virginians did during the Mine Wars from 1912-1922. These uprisings cemented the labor movement, and ‘red necks’ became the proud symbol of workers’ rights over crony capitalist coal bosses. West Virginia’s laborers came full circle when protesters proudly donned red bandanas last February and March during the teachers’ strike.

So, now what? Has the problem been solved? Not quite, but the PEIA Task Force did put out this report. While teachers and other public employees did get a 5% pay raise, the real victory will come when the state gets the boat turned in the right direction. Fixing PEIA so families can afford healthcare was the main reason for the strike—not a pay raise. The meager 5% raise is unlikely to cover the cost of evermore expensive healthcare. According to the WV Center on Budget & Policy, “Health care costs are expected to grow at an annual rate of 7.5 percent, with the prescription drug costs being the biggest driver of increases at 11.5 percent growth each year.”

People over Profit

After exploring the PEIA Task Force website, I’ve been left disappointed. What do we see at the home page? Teachers? Kids? Families? No. We see the Governor signing a bill for a pay raise. Yes, it’s reason to celebrate, but the reality is that we’re just getting started down the long road to a fully-funded PEIA. At the bottom of the short list of issues is “Identifying sources of funding to go toward PEIA.” That’s flimsy language that does not exhibit a dedication to supporting our public employees across the state. Because of this, West Virginians are anxiously awaiting the PEIA Task Force’s report in December.

West Virginians are tired of being used and abused. We deserve better than having our streams polluted and public employees left high and dry. It is my belief that West Virginia doesn’t need more of those kinds of corporate structures, but we do need corporations that will make the effort to help the workers and communities that make business possible in the first place. The love of money must be reined in and directed to provide for people over profit. Passing the tax burden to working and middle class West Virginians is not the solution. Two remedies for immediate relief of PEIA are to return the corporate severance tax to 9% and increase the severance tax on natural gas, most of which is exported from our state to power the world. The first thing we must know: the severance tax is a tax write-off for an extraction corporation. We need long-term solutions and we need them soon.

One thing that needs to change permanently is ensuring that our elected officials respect and protect the public for which they were elected to serve. That can only be done by organizing people to work together, and by reminding them of the power they wield at the ballot box (please ask for a paper ballot). Remember, power concedes nothing without demands.

#PEIA #fundPEIA #teachers #55Strong #55United #education

Below are photos from Day 1 of the teachers strike in Kingwood, WV