“I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it to the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” — Grover Norquist, architect of the GOP No Tax Pledge
Democrats and Republicans have always had broad philosophical differences over the role of government.
Democrats believe government can act collectively to do those things that individuals and the private sector cannot: Build great structures, vital transportation and infrastructure systems, send men to the moon or probes to Mars, provide affordable health care, educate our children and offer safety nets for our poor, disabled and elderly.
Republicans have an innate distrust of government. As Ronald Reagan put it, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” was a threat, not a pledge. To many Republicans, taxation is not a way to do collective good. It’s tantamount to armed robbery.
Republicans want government out of their lives, with the exception of female sexuality, where they believe government should conduct constant interference, and more recently, they’ve advocated for government acting as bathroom monitors. This legislative session, Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate seem hell-bent to embrace Norquist’s goal to shrink government to drownable dimensions.
No one, probably not even Senate President Craig Blair himself, believes eliminating the state income tax will result in a 25% jump in state population. Nobody pretends they’re unaware similar tax cuts had disastrous results in Kansas.
However, by eliminating some 43% of the state’s general revenue budget, even if you make up some of that loss by hiking regressive sales taxes, you’ve gone a long way toward accomplishing the goal of shrinking state and local government to a size of which Norquist would approve.
Likewise, in his State of the State address, Gov. Jim Justice called for three straight years of flat, no-growth state budgets, beginning in 2021-22. (Which would follow two consecutive flat, no-growth budgets, including the current spending plan.)
As anyone who operates a business or maintains a household knows, even in these times of low inflation (and some of us still have our “Whip Inflation Now” buttons), costs of goods and services grow by 2% or so each year. Thus, five consecutive years of no-growth state budgets effectively amounts to a 10% budget cut for state agencies and programs, close to $500 million a year.
Justice’s people have tried to hide that inconvenient truth by failing to publish the six-year financial plan as required in the 2021-22 Executive Budget Report.
However, they can’t make the 2020-21 Executive Budget Report vanish, and that six-year forecast projected budget shortfalls of $157 million to $164 million in each of the out years, beginning with the 2021-22 budget.
(Primary drivers of growing state expenses are rising healthcare costs, just as is the case in the private sector.)
And the 2020 forecast assumed the 2021-22 budget would be working with $5.072 billion of revenue. Despite his best efforts to pretend the state economy is booming, Justice’s proposed 2021-22 budget is $4.569 billion, about $4.8 million less than the current budget. In effect, staying flat will require state agencies and programs to cut spending by $503 million from what was projected.
That’s a budget that’s getting more drownable.
Meanwhile, leadership in both houses is running roughshod with dozens of bills to cause death by a thousand cuts to state agencies, programs and public schools. There are numerous bills to shift tax dollars from public schools to private, parochial, home and charter schools, including the ironically named Hope education savings account bill that’s projected to eventually take $100 million of tax dollars out of the state School Aid Formula each year.
Getting more drownable.
As previously noted, leadership in both houses have been playing shenanigans with legislative rules and conventions under the pretense of having to deal with a pandemic.
Bills with financial implications are getting single committee references and bypassing Finance Committee scrutiny, and bills with financial implications are advancing without fiscal notes that offer at least some glimpse of their true costs.
Additionally, requests for public hearings on bills are being refused, and legislators are being denied the ability to call on expert testimony in committee meetings.
Last week, House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, claimed fiscal notes are only required on bills that change tax laws.
Dark money interests campaigned to have Hanshaw elected speaker. Now, many of the same dark money interests are applauding efforts to cut and shift state spending and conducting Astroturf “grassroots” campaigns to promote these efforts.
Norquist would be pleased.
Meanwhile, the level of vindictiveness by the new GOP supermajorities has been surprisingly harsh, including the House relegating remarks by members from being part of daily floor sessions to occasional late afternoon conclaves when the public isn’t watching. Also last week, House Republicans voted to reject a request by Delegate Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, to include comments by some Democratic members regarding a bill to expand charter schools in the appendix of the House Journal — something that has always been done as common courtesy.
This brings to mind another Norquist quote: “Our goal is to inflict pain. It is not good enough to win. It has to be a painful and devastating defeat. We’re sending a message here. It is like when the king would take his opponent’s head and spike it on a pole for everyone to see.”
Speaking of vindictiveness, I’ve noted here both Hanshaw and Blair have given many, many bills a single committee assignment — a bad practice that allows bills to be ramrodded through the legislative process with insufficient scrutiny or oversight.
However, in looking at House bill introductions one day last week, I noticed virtually all bills with a Republican lead sponsor were single-shotted, while a majority of bills with a Democratic lead sponsor had double and even triple committee references.
Being the nerd that I am, I went through all House bills introduced through Wednesday, and here’s what I found:
Of the 451 bills with a Republican lead sponsor, 283 have single committee references. That’s about 63%.
There were 131 bills with a Democrat lead sponsor, and of those, only 23 were single-referenced. That’s just 17.5%. Coincidence?
In 2022, all House races will be in single-member districts, inevitably pitting some incumbents against one another.
Undoubtedly, during the general election, there will be Republican delegates claiming, “X” number of bills I sponsored passed the House, while my opponent didn’t get a single bill passed” — without explaining how Hanshaw rigged the system against Democrats.
That’s one thing that has changed in a big way since I covered my first legislative session in 1990. Republicans have gone from treating Democrats as colleagues and the loyal opposition to looking at them as a mortal enemy.
Another example, in an intercepted e-mail, Senate Finance Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, raised issues with one person on a list of Justice appointees who had submitted questionnaires for Senate Confirmations Committee hearings this session. He stated:
“Is the Board of Osteopathy a reappointment? If so, does it require a Democrat? I have issue with any Democrat appointed to state government seats where Code does not require a Democrat appointment.”
The position in question is the reappointment of Sharon Rowe as a citizen member on the Board of Osteopathic Medicine.
Rowe has long been active in many civic, philanthropic and arts organizations, but as far as I know, has never been active in Democratic Party politics. Her husband, senior status Circuit Judge James Rowe, did serve in the House of Delegates as a Democrat, including serving as Judiciary chairman and Majority Leader.
Again, this is the mindset of the GOP leadership: Democrats must be quashed and be permitted to serve only if state law specifically mandates it.
This board is nonpartisan, unlike many boards and commissions that require representation on a bipartisan political basis. It’s ironic that most of these boards and commissions were created by Democrat-controlled legislatures, who saw the wisdom of reaching out to members of the other party, not vilifying them.
Finally, as part of my assignment for the “JimboTV: 200 hours of mixed messages, politics and enduring positivity” article in last Sunday’s Gazette-Mail, I was directed to stake out a location to view the West Wing entrance to the Capitol to see when Justice actually arrives for his COVID-19 briefings.
My findings did not make the final cut for Mike Tony’s very enlightening article, so I thought I would share them with you here:
On Monday, Feb. 8, Justice’s briefing was scheduled to start at noon. However, Justice’s SUV (with State Police escort) did not pull up to the West Wing until 12:07 p.m., and Justice didn’t exit the vehicle until 12:14 p.m.
(While I didn’t have a completely unobscured view, this was a Babydog appearance day, and I suspect the delay was to allow an aide to walk Babydog prior to the briefing.)
Justice entered the governor’s reception room at 12:14 p.m., followed a minute later by Babydog and aide.
The briefing began at 12:24 p.m., 24 minutes late.
On Wednesday, February 10, the briefing was scheduled for 11 a.m., and Justice’s SUV arrived at the Capitol at 11:06 a.m. He entered the reception room at 11:08 a.m.
Wednesday’s briefing began at 11:18 a.m., 18 minutes late.
Both mornings, I verified that the SUV wasn’t parked at the governor’s mansion prior to Justice’s arrival at the Capitol, meaning that neither day was a case of Justice running late from a meeting at the mansion.
The one constant of Justice’s COVID-19 briefings has been that they are consistently late, and with some briefings starting more than 30 minutes late.
Justice’s perpetual tardiness clearly isn’t a matter of having an overbooked schedule. It’s simply a factor of Justice believing his time is more valuable than yours or mine, and basically not caring if he’s forcing people to waste time waiting for him.
I’d be curious to hear from readers: What sort of discipline would you be facing if you were late to work 172 times in 11 months?