By March 1, 2020 Read More →

Opinion: At the Capitol

By Phil Kabler

For West Virginia Press

For the second week in a row at the Capitol, a major piece of legislative agenda crashed and burned, as the Senate failed to advance a joint resolution to amend the state Constitution in order to phase out personal property taxes on manufacturing equipment, machinery and inventory, and on motor vehicles.

Phil Kabler

The defeat of SJR 9, on an 18-16 vote – short of the two-thirds majority needed for adoption of resolutions to amend the Constitution – was a second stunning blow for Senate leadership, as the 2020 regular session winds down to its final day, March 7.

That followed a setback a week earlier, when legislation to end a $17 million a year state subsidy for racing purses and breeders funds at the state’s greyhound racetracks in Wheeling Island and Nitro was overwhelmingly defeated on an 11-23 Senate vote.

The tax shift resolution prompted a spirited two-hour floor debate, highlighted by a fiery speech from Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, who anticipating the resolution’s pending defeat, vowed to keep pushing for the business tax cuts.

“I’m married to this issue, and I’m not getting a divorce. I’m going to stick with it,” he said. “I’m not giving up until it’s done.”

Passage of the resolution appeared doomed a day earlier when a companion bill to phase out the manufacturing inventory taxes, along with personal property taxes on other business inventory, and – as a nod to state voters who would have had to approve amending the state Constitution – on personal property taxes on motor vehicles, narrowly passed the Senate on a 17-16 vote (SB 837). That signaled that the Senate was likely to come up short of the 23 “yes” votes needed to adopt the joint resolution.

The companion bill have cut revenue collections for counties, school boards, and cities by $300 million a year, with provisions to make up about $200 million of that deficit with a .5 percent increase in the state sales tax, and sharp increases on taxes on cigarettes, and on other tobacco and vaping products.

Critics of the proposal questioned whether there was an adequate plan in place to close the $100 million annual shortfall, and questioned whether counties would be giving up autonomy with by rolling back their ability to collect property taxes.

Critics also raised doubts whether the tax cut would attract business investment to the state, noting that previous attempts to grow the economy through business tax cuts, tort reform and right-to-work laws had actually had minimal impact overall.

“There may be a point to that,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Charlie Trump, R-Morgan, responded. “That doesn’t mean we stop trying.”

Also at the Capitol:

– The Senate and House of Delegates advanced a total of 85 bills on the 50th day of the regular session, known as “Crossover Day,” the deadline for each house to act on bills originating in that house.

Among legislation surviving that deadline is a bill to require Family Court judges in divorce cases to start with the assumption of giving parents 50-50 custody of children, unless there is compelling evidence of abuse or other grounds for limiting custody (HB 4648)

While critics contend the current standard of putting the interests of the child first is preferable, lead sponsor Delegate Geoff Foster, R-Putnam, said the bill is an effort to keep both parents in their children’s lives after divorce.

Another Crossover Day bill would permit the sale of alcohol in all localities in the state (HB4524). Currently, there are 13 counties, parts of counties or municipalities that are “dry,” and under the bill, those localities would have to have a new referendum votes on whether to prohibit the sale of alcohol.

– In hopes of passing the budget bill on the 60th day of the session for the third straight year, both the House and Senate Finance committees advanced their versions of the 2020-21 state spending plan.

While the two bills contain major differences, they have one thing in common – both cut spending, compared to the current $4.693 billion general revenue budget.

The Senate’s $4.558 billion budget plan would cut state spending by about $135 million, or a nearly 3 percent drop, from the current 2019-20 budget. The House is proposing a 2020-21 general revenue budget of $4.579 billion, about $20 million more than the Senate plan.

The loss of natural gas pipeline construction, coupled with downturns in coal and natural gas prices and production, is forcing both houses to make spending cuts. A House-Senate conference committee will reconcile the two versions of the budget into a single bill during the final days of the session.

Related Stories

Comments are closed.