The proposals this legislative session to reduce and eventually eliminate the state income tax have produced various ideas for making up the lost revenue.
Among those proposals are an increase in the sales tax, reinstating the food tax, and raising taxes on beer, liquor and wine. But now several lawmakers are getting behind a more creative revenue raiser.
“It was right under our noses,” said Delegate Okie Hempton, “or more precisely, over our heads.”
Hempton’s plan is to remove the gold from the State Capitol Dome and sell it.
“The idea occurred to me while leaning back in my chair in the House chamber, staring up at the ceiling and dozing off,” Hempton said.
The famed dome is gilded in 23-karat gold leaf that was applied in tiny three-inch squares. Gold is currently selling at $1,700 an ounce. Hempton believes the state can generate millions of dollars.
“Based on the amount of gold up there, I first put the estimate at $500 million. Then I realized I added an extra zero by mistake, so it’s more like $50 million,” Hampton said. “But that’s still a lot of money.”
The revenue projections would have to be reduced by the cost of the labor for removing the gold, a potentially time-consuming task. However, bill co-sponsor Delegate Adeline Butts believes she has a solution for that.
“You literally have to scrape off the gold with your hands,” Butts said. “So, we will pay the workers by allowing them to keep, and then presumably sell, any and all of the gold that collects under their fingernails.”
West Virginia has sold off a major asset before to raise funds, but that was a long time ago and the outcome was not good.
In 1887, the cash-strapped state government sold its equal share of, and the naming rights to, the Ohio River to the state of Ohio. Then-Ohio Governor Wilkie Dalton was anxious to complete the deal.
After a short negation, the two sides settled on a price of $110,000, which would be over $3 million in today’s dollars. Unfortunately, Dalton was killed in a kiln explosion shortly thereafter.
The money was never paid, yet Ohio retained naming rights to the river, setting off decades of hard feelings between the two states that are still evident today when Ohio motorists drive slowly in the left lane on West Virginia Interstates.
But back to the gold leaf sale.
A few West Virginia lawmakers are worried that removing the gold leaf from the dome will dull the shine. Hempton, who runs a commercial painting business in Elkshank, believes the famous glow can be replaced by just painting it gold.
“I’ve got a color in my inventory called ‘Tuscan Sun’,” Hempton said. “You spray enough of that stuff up there and on a sunny day it will be bright enough to burn out your eyeballs.”
If approved by the Legislature, the sale of the gold and the repainting of the Tuscan Sun dome could be completed in exactly one year, on April Fools Day, 2022.