The State Journal – When it comes to making good public policy, it is always important to remember that there are two things people really hate: The first is change and the second is the way things are. This is why it is easy to focus on the negative aspects of the recent legislative session when, in fact, a good deal was accomplished that moves our state forward. Read
While it also would be easy to go through all of the disappointments from this year’s session — and there are plenty — what I would like to do is review some of the positive steps taken this year.
Raising the Minimum Wage: Although there are still some kinks to be worked out in an upcoming special session in May, low-income working families won a big victory with the increases made to the minimum wage. In fact, raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.75 by 2016 may be the best action the Legislature and governor have taken in decades to help hard working families in our state. Altogether, approximately 127,000 workers in the state will get a raise by 2016. For a full-time minimum wage worker, his annual pay will increase by $3,120, which for a family of two is the difference between living in or out of poverty. It also will provide a much-needed boost to our state’s economy.
Establishing a Future Fund: West Virginia took a giant first step in ensuring it will always benefit from its rich natural resources by dedicating 3 percent of its severance tax collections to a permanent trust fund. While it faces serious funding challenges because of several triggers included in the legislation, the Legislature can take steps in the near future to ensure the fund grows bigger over time and becomes a constitutionally protected permanent fund.
Protecting Pregnant Workers and Nursing Children: Beginning in June, moms will finally have the right to breastfeed their babies in public and employers will be required to provide reasonable accommodations to pregnant workers and will not be able to deny them employment opportunities based on pregnancy status. Each of these protections will not only improve the health of children, but will make our state more family friendly.
Protecting Our Drinking Water Supply: After the Jan. 9 chemical spill into the Elk River that contaminated the drinking water of more than 300,000 people, the Legislature implemented meaningful reform to regulate above ground storage tanks and to closely monitor the long-term effects from chemical exposure as a result of the Freedom Industries spill. For a state that has a difficult time implementing environmental safety rules, this legislation was surprisingly good.
Two important bills that would have helped workers and businesses died late in the session.
Building Retirement Security: More than 250,000 workers in West Virginia lack the ability to save for retirement at their places of employment. This is largely because many small businesses face too many obstacles to enroll their workers. With this in mind, the Legislature nearly passed a bill creating a system of Voluntary Employee Retirement Accounts (VERA) that would have given all workers at small businesses access to a payroll deduction retirement plan. This would not only have made our seniors more economically secure, but would have improved our state’s long-term fiscal health and our ability to attract and retain workers.
Averting Layoffs with Work Sharing: Another bill that nearly passed this year which would have helped workers and businesses was a special form of unemployment insurance called “work-sharing.” Work-sharing allows employers to avert layoffs during difficult economic times by reducing the hours and wages of their employees and supplementing it with unemployment insurance benefits. By doing so, employers can retain skilled workers during a temporary downturn and workers get to stay on the job and avoid the dangers of long-term unemployment. The best part is that it is a voluntary program and it doesn’t cost the state anything.
While the recent legislative session may have not been pretty, many good things were accomplished to help working families and our state. Let’s hope next year we continue to move our state forward and we continue to work together to find solutions to the problems we face.
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