This was written prior to Election Day, so I have no idea whether Tuesday the voters selected me for another term in the West Virginia House of Delegates or have decided to award the seat to Elliot Simon, my Republican opponent.
If I have been elected, I commit to continuing this column. If Mr. Simon has been chosen, I'm sure he will write such a column on a regular basis.
Whichever of us has won will face a difficult public policy landscape. While our state is better off than most fiscally, we still have great financial management difficulties confronting us. While the unemployment rate is still below the national average, it's still too high. And our per capita income has bounced along the bottom of the states for too long.
We have exceedingly large unfunded liabilities in our pension funds. This requires us to put larger percentages of our state's revenue toward lowering them than is the case for most states. As a result, state workers and public school employees must look forward to minimal pay increases, if they are to get them at all.
Meanwhile, the Eastern Panhandle delegation must strive even harder than it has to get some version of locality pay, by whatever name it is called. I think the best chance for better pay for school employees in our region is an increase in the percentage of the "local share" of school revenues that do not displace state-aid money. By contrast, I think the best avenue for state employees in Jefferson, Berkeley and Morgan counties to get some extra money based on residence is a housing allowance.
But both of those are guesses. I could, of course, be wrong.
Also, it's important to get some change in the homestead exemption on our property taxes. Right now, it's $20,000 on an owner-occupied residence for anyone over the age of 65, regardless of the value of the home. Whatever the value of a given home here, that same home would be valued at about half that much in at least 40 of West Virginia's 55 counties. We need to make the exemption more fair.
Simply raising it won't work because that would bankrupt several small rural counties. Making it a strict percentage would, I think, be unfair to low-income folks who own modest homes. Perhaps some combination of a minimal flat figure and a percentage might work.
We've strengthened our public schools' curriculum considerably in recent years, but more needs to be done. I think we need stronger requirements in history and geography, and I'm convinced we need more required physical education.
While we're going to have to siphon off even more of our general revenue fund to pay down the unfunded liabilities, we must guard against cutting higher education any more. In fact, I think we've cut it too far now, and we need to figure out a way to increase that funding.
Serious environmental challenges await the convening of the legislature in January. West Virginia will have to pony up a considerable amount of money to comply with the new environmental regulations established by the U.S. Congress to protect the Chesapeake Bay. The Eastern Panhandle delegation will have to work extra hard to make sure this financial burden is shared statewide rather than imposed entirely on the eight counties and portions of two others that are in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
While coal will clearly be part of our nation's energy mix for the forseeable future, we must impose stronger environmental controls on its extraction. And we must more strictly enforce the safety regulations now on the books.
We must continue our march toward a more fair and simpler tax structure. Eliminating the personal property tax on business will remove the second-biggest impediment to attracting new businesses to our state. The biggest, the franchise tax, is already statutorily doomed to extinction in another three and a half years.
Somehow we're going to need to get another $50 million per year into the State Road Fund, just to keep our roads from deteriorating further. And we're going to have to find about $25 million per year for the state's responsibility under the new federal health care law.
These are just some of the difficulties the Legislature will face in 2011.