To borrow a line from the late, great Daily Mail columnist Richard Grimes, the legislative session is half over. However, unlike the second half of the lede of his annual mid-session column, we can’t say nothing much has happened yet.
The first half of the 2021 regular session has been a mad rush to ram as many score-settling anti-teacher, anti-worker, anti-union, anti-health and safety (and even some anti-newspaper) bills through the Legislature as quickly as possible before circumstances may conspire to force Gov. Jim Justice and legislative leaders to begrudgingly unlock the Capitol doors and allow the public back in to participate in the legislative process.
Heck, in one floor session alone last week, the House of Delegates passed bills to strip worker rights, give businesses immunity from lawsuits and rollback water safety standards. That’s what they call a good day’s work.
My concern is, what will happen in the second half of the session, as the mad rush of leadership bills peters out?
Just as nature abhors a vacuum, the Legislature abhors down time, and that is when the really horrendous bills are likely to surface.
For instance, check out the bills pending under the subject heading of Human Rights. I think we would all agree a short definition of human rights is, “Shared values of dignity, fairness and equality.”
However, under the worldview of the current legislative majorities, Human Rights has become a catch-all category that includes at least seven anti-gun safety bills; at least five anti-abortion bills; at least two bills permitting religious beliefs to be used as grounds to discriminate; at least two bills prohibiting teaching about racism or sexism; and, perhaps most ironically, a bill to eliminate the state Human Rights Commission.
(And yet, Justice thinks our brightest young people are fleeing the state because our income taxes are too high.)
Several of the gun bills would make it a crime to attempt to enforce any federal gun safety regulations that are more stringent than state law. The version that appears to have momentum, Senate Bill 353, would also prohibit cities and counties from enacting their own gun safety ordinances. Those that dare do so would not only be subject to criminal charges, but a loss of state funding in the next budget year.
From the GOP’s perspective, over the course of a year, President Joe Biden has gone from being so frail and doddering that he was incapable of leaving his basement to campaign, to being a superhuman masked avenger who’s swooping into people’s houses to take their guns.
The Legislature’s pistol worship is also likely to lead us this session to revisit the controversy over permitting firearms on college campuses.
This is a bill that is the very antithesis of what Justice wants for West Virginia: West Virginia University and greater Morgantown, unlike the rest of the state, are growing and attracting and retaining young professionals.
Lots of folks from out-of-state opt to go to school there or work there, and many stay post-graduation.
Turning WVU into Dodge City will ruin that, as President Gordon Gee made clear in a letter to the Senate last week: “[The presence of guns on campus would discourage many talented students and faculty members from joining our learning community or have those who are here look elsewhere.”
So we again have legislation pending that was in no way requested by the affected parties; in fact, the affected parties adamantly oppose the legislation.
However, the fact that affected parties oppose legislation means little to the legislative supermajorities.
This session, Republicans have taken their supermajority status to mean they’ve somehow been bestowed with absolute authority. They seemingly believe they can pass whatever legislation they want without regard to the U.S. or state constitutions, current state Code, legal precedents, popular opinion, or simple logic or morality.
If you think the first half of this legislative session was terrible, get ready, because chances are, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
It was surely strictly coincidental that a couple of eye-opening reports happened to be published on the same day last week, including U.S. News and World Report’s annual “Best States” rankings.
According to U.S. News, West Virginia is not, as Justice has claimed, the envy of the U.S. It ranked 47th, same as last year, ahead of just New Mexico, Mississippi and Louisiana.
The rankings are based on comparisons of 70-plus metrics, and West Virginia performed miserably in most.
West Virginia ranked 50th for infrastructure, with 31% of its roads being in poor condition (the national average is 20%), 48th for the economy, 47th for health care and 45th for education.
The state ranked 36th for natural environment, with 10.16 drinking water violations per 100,000 population — nearly five-times the national average of 2.08 violations — even as Republican supermajorities push through legislation to further weaken regulation of aboveground chemical storage tanks.
The metrics weren’t entirely bad — West Virginia ranked 8th for affordability, with a cost of living that’s just 89% of the national average.
On the same day, WalletHub released its annual survey of state taxes, “States with the Highest and Lowest Tax Rates.”
That report found West Virginia has the 17th lowest state and local taxes in the U.S., with a tax burden that is 10.31% below the national average.
Adjusted for cost of living, West Virginia’s taxes are 12th lowest, with its annual median household state and local taxes of $4,405 being the second lowest in the country.
In 11 states, including income tax-free Washington, median household state and local taxes are more than double that amount.
State and local tax burdens of our neighboring states rank from 25th (Virginia) to 48th (Pennsylvania), yet residents of these states are not pouring into West Virginia to take advantage of our comparatively low taxes.
Meanwhile, the report — based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics, Tax Foundation and Federation of Tax Administrators, among other reputable sources — links to a previous study, “Best States to be Rich or Poor From a Tax Perspective,” where one of the categories was “Highest Overall Tax Burden Between the Rich and Poor.”
That listed the five states where the variance between low-income families paying comparatively high percentages of their incomes in taxes and high-income families paying comparatively small percentages was the most extreme.
Those five states — Texas, Nevada, Tennessee, South Dakota and Washington — all are states with no income tax.
Generally speaking, in those states, the tax burden as a percentage of income for high-income households is half of the tax burden for low-income households.
In Tennessee, for instance, a low-income family pays 9.45% of income in taxes, while a high-income family pays only 5.11%.
(In West Virginia, a low-income family pays 9.02% of income in taxes, while a high-income family pays 8.44%.)
If you’re poor and living in Tennessee, consider yourself lucky, since in three of the five no income tax states, low-income households pay more than 10% of their total income in taxes.
Naturally, the states with the greatest tax unfairness are states that don’t have a progressive income tax and rely on regressive taxes. A sales tax makes no regard to whether you’re down to your last five bucks or whether you’re a billionaire.
The other lesson to be drawn from these two reports is that West Virginia is starving itself to death financially.
As U.S. News found, the state doesn’t have the resources to provide its citizens with programs, infrastructure and services that are anywhere close to adequate, hence the low rankings. If Justice succeeds in his plan to have five consecutive years of “flat” no-growth budgets, by the end of five years, the state will be completely emaciated financially, with no chance of attracting 400 new residents, let alone 400,000.
Meanwhile, later in the week, a third report came out that ranked West Virginia 50th in the nation in an especially critical statistic.
According to the latest National Vital Statistics report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, average life expectancy in West Virginia has dropped to, no pun intended, dead last in the U.S. at 74.4 years — a full 4.3 years less than the national average of 78.7 years.
Since Republicans took control of the Legislature after the 2014 elections, the average life expectancy in West Virginia has declined by a full year.
Perhaps that’s where Justice’s focus should be, not on giving tax breaks to the wealthy.
Finally, the theatrics of claiming it is still unsafe to reopen the Capitol or reopen gubernatorial briefings is becoming more and more absurd as Justice continues to roll back other state COVID-19 restrictions, and as more and more people are getting vaccinated.
Legislative leadership’s argument that they needed to push through as many bills as possible in the opening weeks of the session in case a COVID-19 outbreak forced the Legislature to go on hiatus never held water.
All legislators and all legislative staff had top priority early on for vaccinations, so risk of an outbreak, in reality, should be minimal.
In reality, it’s all about keeping the public and the media at bay as the Legislature passes a series of highly controversial and unpopular measures, and all about allowing Justice to keep stranglehold control over the narrative on the state’s COVID-19 response.
It’s time to reopen the Capitol, with proper safety precautions of course, and to either allow media in Justice’s briefings, or — given that they continue to have less and less utility and have become more and more a forum for Justice to go off on self-serving tangents, political pandering, and ad hominem attacks — to end them entirely.