Government, Latest News, WVPA Sharing

By one vote, WV Senate passes school tax increase bill


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va .— By a hair, the West Virginia Senate on Wednesday passed a bill that would cut state pre-K through 12 public education funding by $79.3 million and automatically raise counties’ regular levy property tax rates to make up for the loss.

Senate Bill 609 also would enable county school boards to opt out of the tax increase if they’re willing to take the significant financial hit. Senators said the bill also would increase school boards’ spending flexibility in various ways.

The bill passed 17-16 with Sen. Chandler Swope, R-Mercer, the only senator absent. Swope told a reporter he was taking a bathroom break and would’ve voted for the bill.

All of the Senate Democrats, and some Republicans, voted against the legislation. It now heads to the House of Delegates.

Amy Willard, executive director of the state Office of School Finance, previously provided numbers on what each county public school system would lose if SB 609 passed and the county school board completely opted out of the tax increase.

Kanawha, for example, would lose the most: $9.3 million. Monongalia would lose $5 million, Putnam would lose $2.7 million, Logan would lose $1.3 million, Wayne would lose $1.1 million and Boone would lse $900,000.

Willard said that if school boards allow their regular levy tax rates to be increased under the bill, they effectively would have no funding change next fiscal year.

She said the current planned rate next fiscal year for a Class 2 property — owner-occupied residential property and farms — is 38.8 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, and the new rate under the bill would be 45.9 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

She has said the change would mean a person with a home appraised at $75,000 would pay $31.95 extra on his or her annual tax bill for that home, while someone would pay $42.60 extra on a $100,000 home.

Willard said school boards currently can’t raise regular levy property-tax rates; they can ask voters to pass excess property-tax levies, and even those excess levy rates are legally capped.

Senate Finance Chairman Mike Hall, R-Putnam, said he’s heard from some legislative attorneys that school boards already have the power to raise their regular levy property tax rates, but he said no board has ever done so and this bill would specifically state in law that they have the power to change that rate.

Democratic Sens. Robert Plymale and John Unger pressed Republican Sens. Kenny Mann and Ryan Ferns to call the legislation a tax increase bill.

“Yes or no, we’re implementing a tax increase?” Plymale, D-Wayne, asked Mann.

“It’s an investment,” replied Mann, R-Monroe and chairman of the Senate Education Committee. “But they have —”

“I’ll take that as a yes,” Plymale interjected.

“But they do have the option to not have their increase,” Mann continued. “And I know a lot can’t afford that.”

Plymale continued pressing Mann, telling Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, that he was just looking for a yes or no.

“I know the answer, what it is,” Plymale said. “I’m just having trouble getting it out.”

Unger similarly pressed Mann and Ferns, the Senate’s majority leader and R-Ohio. Unger, D-Berkeley, said he was concerned about school board members running for office on platforms of lowering taxes.

“How does that fit with living within our means?” Unger said of the bill, “when we’re harvesting $79.3 million out of the pockets of West Virginians?”

Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, asked Unger if he had a better plan for revenue increases or cuts, and Unger said he thinks discussions with Gov. Jim Justice are ongoing.

“This may be one of the best bills we’ve passed or looked at this session,” said Sen. Ed Gaunch, R-Kanawha. “Here’s our options: We do this or we do the $50- or $100-million cut to public education or we raise some other bunch of taxes to fill this hole. This is by far the best plan, by far, and it sounds like you all want somebody to be painted with the brush of a tax — well paint me, I don’t care, I hope it matches my tie.”

Gaunch said “the cowardly thing is to stand up, bloviate and pontificate about something and not have a better plan.”

The original version of the bill would’ve just cut about $53 million with no tax increase, and another previous version would’ve cut the $79.3 million but required school boards to opt in to the tax increase rather than opt out.

Plymale said he probably could support the bill if it were part of an overall package that included some other tax revenue and the Republicans showing what they wanted to do in cuts.

In other legislative action, on Tuesday, with 45 delegates in favor and 55 opposed, the House shot down a bill that would’ve eliminated state law’s cap on the number of students per teacher in sixth-grade public school classrooms.

House Bill 3088 would’ve removed the requirement that sixth grade classrooms have no more than 25 students per teacher.

That’s the same cap for grades one through five. There are no caps for grades seven through 12.

The existing caps do have some exemptions, including not applying to some classes, including band, and allowing up to 28 students per teacher in schools where the average ratio is still 25 students per teacher or lower.

Delegates also passed on Tuesday House Bill 2589, which would allow home-school and private school students to attend county public school systems’ vocational education schools without being charged more than public school students.

The vote was 98-1, and the bill now heads to the Senate.

The House also passed on Tuesday House Bill 2196, which would allow home-school students to participate in Secondary School Activities Commission athletics. The SSAC currently includes every public middle school and public high school, as well as certain private schools.

The vote was 60-38, and the bill now heads to the Senate.

See more from the Charleston Gazette-Mail

Comments are closed.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

And get our latest content in your inbox

Invalid email address