While I would rate the legislature's performance this year overall as less than average, we did pass a few bills that will in my view improve the lives of West Virginians.
We lowered the sales tax on food by another penny. It's been 3 percent for a couple of years, having been lowered from 6 percent over a three year period. I believe we should do away with it entirely and we do intend to do so. But we have to do it responsibly and I think that means gradually. Every penny of this tax equates to about $25 million in our state's general revenue fund.
We could have eliminated it entirely if we had not decided to give a small raise in salary to state employees and public school employees. That raise will amount to approximately 2 percent per person and will cost the state about $60 million. I strongly supported this raise because it's been three years since they got their last raise. We also gave a one-time only bonus payment of $1,200 for retirees with at least 20 years experience whose annual retirement does not exceed $7,200.
I think it's testimony to the responsible way our state has been managed by the legislature and the last two governors (first Joe Manchin and now Earl Ray Tomblin) that we're able to give public employees pay raises and cut taxes. Remember, the Business Franchise Tax (in my view the stupidest tax any state could ever place on businesses) drops by another percentage point this year, a result of a law passed several years ago which will totally eliminate it in another three years.
We strengthened our Ethics Act considerably. Now those of us in public office must disclose not only our own incomes but those of our spouses. This rule applies to candidates for office and top aides of officeholders as well as officeholders. And people must wait a year after leaving public office to lobby the legislature or agencies of the executive branch.
In K-12 education we created a student dropout prevention and recovery program and also devised a program to help county school boards use federal funds for tutoring, summer school and reducing class sizes. When we compiled the budget we expanded our low-income college tuition assistance grant program (already the most generous in the country) by $4 million.
In the area of law enforcement we increased the penalties for financial exploitation of a senior citizen or incapacitated adult and made computer bullying a crime. We also filled in what I thought was a big gap in our kidnapping laws by passing a bill called "Celena's Law." Kidnapping is a felony, and to be guilty you have to actually abduct someone. But forcibly detaining someone in his or her own home actually hasn't been a crime. "Celena's Law" creates a misdemeanor version of kidnapping that will cover such forcible detention.
We created the West Virginia Benefit Exchange Act. This makes our state eligible for $50 million in federal funding and allows individuals and small businesses to pool buying power to purchase health insurance from private insurers. This mirrors the new federal health care law and will enable West Virginia to quickly adapt to this law. Should the new federal law be disrupted by the courts our state exchange will still be around to lower health insurance costs for hundreds of thousands of West Virginians.
Another major health care achievement was the passage of a bill that will require insurers to cover autism spectrum disorders. This culminated an effort of about a half-dozen years to require such coverage.
We raised the prices of drivers' licenses and vehicle license tags for the first time in many years. The approximately $40 million this move will raise was dedicated to maintenance of secondary roads, so there will be fewer potholes over the next few years.
West Virginia is one of a few states to require employees of barber and/or beauty shops to be a graduate of a barber or beauty college to wash a customer's hair. We changed that this year.
I was the lead sponsor of a bill we passed that gives West Virginia a "reporter shield" law. This law protects reporters who uncover crimes by preventing judges from sending them to jail if they refuse to divulge their sources. Many times people with knowledge of crimes will "spill the beans" to reporters if they know their identities will not be revealed. Without such a "shield" law many crimes would go unsolved.
I first became interested in this issue when Judith Miller, then a reporter for the New York Times, was sent to jail for a couple of months for refusing to divulge her source for the story of the "outing" of Valerie Plame as a CIA agent a few years ago.