Debate over a property tax amendment on General Election ballots is hitting the road.
Berkeley County Council members passed a resolution this week in favor of the amendment, going against the grain of other county organizations that have been coming out against it. Senate President Craig Blair, who is making a priority of property tax changes, spoke in front of the council in his home county to encourage the resolution.
Meanwhile, Gov. Jim Justice is heading to Wheeling on Friday for a trip that includes a stop at a local fish market where the governor will say the property tax amendment stinks. Justice plans instead to again tout his support for income tax cuts.
So property tax politics are occurring from panhandle to panhandle in West Virginia just a few weeks out from the Nov. 8 General Election.
In Berkeley County, Commissioner James Barnhart asked the Senate president if a local resolution in favor of the property tax amendment could generate momentum with other counties.
“Will this influence any other counties?” Barnhart asked during a Thursday council meeting.
Yes, said Blair, R-Berkeley.
“I frankly believe it will start a tidal wave across the state where they understand it,” Blair said. “There’s a lot of information being perpetuated by people that want to cling to the past. I call them ‘legacy.’ It’s the legacy that’s built into this state that doesn’t want change. They just want to be the way they’ve been, but it’s disappointing, to be honest.”
State lawmakers have long talked about having more flexibility with property taxes, particularly those that businesses pay on equipment and inventory. Last year, lawmakers passed a resolution that could allow changes on personal property tax rates.
Because it’s a constitutional issue, West Virginia voters have say-so on the matter through General Election ballots.
Property taxes are a main piece of how counties pay for services like school systems, ambulance services, libraries and more.
Earlier this month, boards of the West Virginia Association of Counties and the County Commissioners Association of West Virginia voted to oppose Amendment 2, the “Property Tax Modernization Amendment.” The first group represents county assessors, circuit clerks, county clerks, prosecutors and sheriffs.
The groups cited loss of authority over about $550 million in “dedicated, constitutionally-protected revenues” — and “handing that money to the Legislature.” They also expressed concern over lack of consensus among the Senate, House and governor about a solid plan to make up revenue to the local governments.
“They’re very strong, in their vote, that they want to keep those revenues local,” Matt Harvey, who recently became president of the Association of Counties, told Panhandle Live on WEPM Radio. “They don’t want the revenues going to Charleston and having each county fight to claw it back — and that’s the fear.”
Blair and other Senate leaders have suggested money from the state would more than make up for what counties give up in property taxes. That could pay for expenses that local governments now struggle to meet, including jail bills, the Senate president has said.
The Berkeley County Council agreed with him Thursday while passing its resolution in favor of the proposal, saying it “would give state lawmakers the ability to exempt personal property tax on West Virginia residents vehicles and provide tax relief to businesses both large and small.”
The resolution went on to express confidence that any tax reform would be sustainable and not jeopardize critical local services. “The Berkeley County Council supports the passage of Amendment 2 and urges that any tax relief adopted by the Legislature assures that the county budgets are not negatively impacted.”
“So there it is,” said Doug Copenhaver, president of the five-member board. “We’ve got to change. We’ve got to be competitive. We want our youth to stay in Berkeley County and in this wonderful state.”
Governor Justice will express those same goals while saying an income tax cut that he supports is the key. Justice has a stop scheduled at noon Friday at Coleman’s Fish Market in Wheeling with his female British bulldog sidekick, Babydog, to talk about taxes. The governor also plans to be in the area for a streetscaping project ceremony.
Justice has long been enthusiastic about an income tax cut, although the details of the tax proposal sometimes shift, while expressing a wary view of the property tax proposal. In recent weeks, his position on the amendment measure has become more clearly oppositional.
During a briefing this week at the Capitol, the governor spoke for 10 minutes for income tax cuts and against property tax cuts.
He said the property tax proposal amounts to this: “I want you to put your wallet out here and all your money, I want to take all the money out of your wallet. Every bit. And not only that, any more money you get to put in your wallet, I want the money. And then I’m going to promise you that I’m going to give it back to you.”
In contrast, the governor contended, “The key to the Emerald City in West Virginia is the income tax today.”