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Constituents voice concerns to WV delegates on eve of special session


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — On the eve of a special legislative session to hash out West Virginia’s budget for the coming fiscal year, constituents told some of their delegates they are not on board with the cuts found in the budget vetoed by the governor last month.

West Virginia Delegates (left to right) Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha; Rodney Pyles, D-Monongalia; Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha; Andrew Robinson, D-Kanawha; and Andrew Byrd, D-Kanawha, speak with dozens of residents at Wednesday evening’s budget town hall meeting at Charleston’s Capital High School. Legislators begin a special session to work on the 2017-18 state budget this morning. Watch a video report at
(Photo by Justin Rogers)

Hosting a town hall at Capital High School, Kanawha Democratic delegates Larry Rowe, Mike Pushkin, Andrew Robinson and Andrew Byrd, joined by Rodney Pyles, D-Monongalia, took feedback from roughly 50 people on how they would like to see West Virginia’s $500 million deficit handled.

Robinson said from the onset, given the Democratic minorities in both the House of Delegates and the Senate, some cuts are likely. He said the goal of the event would be to know what battles were worth picking.

“What we need from you all is to tell us these programs that are dear to your heart, that are instrumental in the community, so that we can be prepared to protect those, because there will be cuts,” he said. “We will be facing cuts.”

The Legislature passed a budget toward the end of the session that would have slashed funding for, among others, the Department of Health and Human Resources and different education programs.

However, Gov. Jim Justice and Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, came close to a compromise version of the budget lessening the cuts, with the trade-off of lowering the state’ personal income tax.

As the town hall went on, most speakers made it clear they see cutting the progressive income tax and replacing it with flat consumption taxes as a means of carving out tax cuts for the wealthy at the expense of the poor and middle class. They said some of the flat taxes would devastate working families.

The first speaker of the night, Tina Russell, said she worked as a substitute teacher and social worker in West Virginia. She said the state’s schools are in bad enough shape as it is, and the last thing they need is more cuts.

“I have a lot of concerns about this budget,” she said. “I am in a lot of these schools, I am in a lot of these communities, I meet with a lot of these parents. A lot of my concerns are related to the fact that from what I can see in this budget, it’s really going to be on the backs of people who can’t afford it.”

She went on to criticize the idea of cutting higher education as a means of bettering a state in the long run.

“If we want to be a state that’s up and coming, how can we afford to cut higher education, if the brightest people among us won’t even have the opportunity to go because they can’t afford it?” she said.

Jack Deskins, a father of four, said additional taxes on gas, food, or a general sales tax could put his family over the edge.

Additionally, he said the income tax would be just another way to make West Virginia’s poorest subsidize its wealthiest.

“I think that getting rid of the income tax is nothing less than an assault on working people,” he said. “…I don’t want a compromise on that issue.”

Although most citizens, like Deskins, held steady against a compromise on the income tax, all the delegates, when asked, refused to promise to unconditionally vote against cutting it.

Rowe said it looks to him that the Senate is ready to give up some of its cuts to cobble together some more votes to diminish the income tax, and it’s a bargaining chip he’s not ready to give up.

“It’s interesting to me that the Senate leadership is basically putting on the table everything the governor wants in order to get a tax reduction for upper income folks. That’s the way it feels, that’s the way it looks,” he said.

All the delegates sided with Rowe, to some jeering from the crowd, in that their willingness could mean leverage in a negotiation. At the beginning of the night he said that his goal for the budget session was to pass a permanent fix to the structural problems of the budget, and to make sure it’s not the most vulnerable who have to pick up the slack.

“We’re not balancing the budget on the backs of working people at the expense of a tax cut for the wealthy,” he said. “It’s important to me that we don’t balance this budget at the expense of essential programs that help the most vulnerable members of our society: seniors, children and people with disabilities.”

Pushkin noted at the event that House Republicans were invited to the town hall but were in caucus during the event.

The Legislature is scheduled to reconvene at 11 a.m. Thursday to begin the fiscal showdown.

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