Governor Jim Justice brought together Legislative leaders and stakeholders to try, yet again, to win over converts to the plan to gradually lower the state’s income tax while raising the consumer sales tax.
All things being equal, a meeting of the key players where ideas are discussed would be a good thing. However, Thursday’s closed door session of nearly two hours descended into finger pointing and accusations.
Things came to a head when Senator Roberts Karnes (R-Upshur), the Senate’s driving force behind income tax reductions, launched into Democrats saying they could not accept that their 80 years of control are over and the state is headed in a new direction. That’s when the meeting finally just disintegrated.
MetroNews statewide correspondent Brad McElhinny, who talked with fuming lawmakers and the Governor as they left the meeting, tweeted, “Please raise the threat level from #DumpsterFire to #fubar.” One official who was in the meeting said in his opinion the chance of the state shutting down had risen from 50 percent to 80 percent.
The meeting was followed by some heavy lobbying by the Justice administration and stakeholders who backed his plan. Then last night, the Senate overwhelmingly approved (30-2) his new revenue bill that raises the consumer sales tax from six percent to 6.5 percent and lowers the state income tax rates an average of five percent starting in 2018 with cuts of five percent each of the next three years if economic triggers are met. The Senate then immediately approved a $4.35 billion budget bill.
Read more about the proposal from McElhinny here.
However, the plan faces an uphill battle in the House where Delegates–both Republicans and Democrats–have objected to the income tax reductions. Without House approval, a shutdown is still possible at the June 30 end of the fiscal year.
So, how do we avoid a shutdown? Several things need to happen.
First, the Governor needs to stop presenting new plans or even recycling previous plans. He deserves credit for floating different revenue and tax cutting ideas over the past several months, but it may be too late to build consensus for ideas that, in one form or another, cannot pass.
Second, Senate Republicans should postpone their tax reduction plan because, as previously mentioned, the House won’t pass it. Senate Republicans can, however, extract a promise for comprehensive tax reform at a later date.
Third, the House must pass the Governor’s road construction plan. The legislation will raise the gas tax, DMV fees and turnpike tolls, creating a funding source for a huge statewide road bond. That will help fix the roads and generate economic growth that will help balance the budget.
Fourth, the House and the Senate need to agree on what will essentially be a status quo budget with expected revenue of $4.225 billion. The budget will include some cuts, but the reductions in the House version are manageable.
Fifth, get it done and go home. It is evident that all parties are at wit’s end. The fatigue, frustration, anger and mistrust make it almost impossible to reach agreement. They just might be able to come to terms on something that keeps the state operating, but they have to keep it simple. Pass the basic budget and leave town.
We are dangerously close to a government shutdown, which will interrupt services and leave thousands of state employees without jobs. Governor Justice and state leaders want to re-imagine West Virginia by focusing on our possibilities, not just our problems and a shutdown would be exactly the wrong message.