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Debate over Amendment Two focuses on finances and faith in officials

Voter decisions over a constitutional amendment about property taxes come down not only to finances, but also trust.

Senate Finance Chairman Eric Tarr says legislative supermajorities have shown they can be trusted to make responsible decisions with tax dollars. Kanawha County Commissioner Kent Carper counters that there’s no guarantee what lawmakers might do in coming years if they gain more control over property taxes.

The two squared off in a one-hour a debate over Amendment Two on MetroNews’ “Talkline.” The discussion was sponsored by the Stubblefield Institute for Civil Political Communications at Shepherd University.

Amendment Two recognizes that, for decades, property taxes have been defined by the state Constitution. Property taxes are a main piece of how local governments pay for services like school systems, ambulance services, libraries and more.

This amendment would allow the Legislature to exempt personal property taxes on people’s vehicles and on what businesses pay for inventory, machinery and equipment.

This is what it says: “To amend the State Constitution by providing the Legislature with authority to exempt tangible machinery and equipment personal property directly used in business activity and tangible inventory personal property directly used in business activity and personal property tax on motor vehicles from ad valorem property taxation by general law.”

Now, during the coming General Election, citizens will have a say in whether that’s wise.

“This puts the decisions of how you’re taxed in the hands of the people you vote for,” said Tarr, R-Putnam.

Eric Tarr

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.

“We can go in and eliminate these $500 million in taxes to the people and small businesses of West Virginia — and our large employers — and we can also backfill the counties and superfund all these services that counties now are suffering to be able to provide, police services, ambulance services and those type of things, and make it a safe way to fund it,” Tarr said today.

Kent Carper

Carper contended that right now local governments have a constitutional guarantee representing property tax revenue that pays for those kinds of public services.

The amendment would give the Legislature the authority to exempt the property taxes. Doing so would require a second step of passing a law.

“What law? Right now it’s in the Constitution,” he said, suggesting there’s no guarantee about what future legislatures would do. “That’s what they’re not discussing. Right now it’s enshrined in the Constitution.”

Carper countered that all bets are off with the state budget, now experiencing a record surplus, if the economy gets worse or if energy prices fluctuate wildly. He contended big businesses would be the biggest beneficiaries of the tax cut.

“While it is absolutely true that West Virginia has a surplus right now we are facing a national recession, we have record inflation and this discussion about the surplus, I think a lot of it came in the boom in the extraction industry in West Virginia,” he said. “But let’s assume this is a real surplus; it’s here forever. Here’s the question: Who’s the big winner on this? In most counties the big winners are like Walmart and Kroger and big companies.”

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