Hypocrisy has been a legislative hallmark to varying degrees in probably all the sessions I’ve covered, but the current Legislature is taking hypocrisy to new heights.
Hypocrisy is Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, on day 48 of the 60-day session telling supporters of the Crown Act (SB 108, HHB 2698) they need to stop complaining about their bill’s demise because there simply wasn’t time to vet the two-sentence bill this session. Yet, the Legislature on the 45th day of session for the first time took up a 400-page bill that completely rewrites state criminal code, a bill that could well be called the “Lock Them Up and Throw Away the Key Act.”
Likewise, the complex policy questions surrounding cutting income taxes and shifting the burden elsewhere didn’t emerge until the 43rd day of the session (HB 3300), and a joint resolution to set the groundwork for repealing personal property taxes on business inventory, equipment and machinery (HJR 3) was first taken up a day earlier.
Arguably, there’s been precious little vetting on any of those matters, certainly with little to no input from experts or affected parties.
There’s been no attempt to determine whether the central premise and justification for cutting income taxes — that lowering or eliminating that particular tax will result in large numbers of people relocating here — has any validity. For proponents of the tax cut/shift, it’s just been accepted as gospel, although there is considerable data to suggest it will do little to nothing to reverse the state’s ongoing and accelerating outmigration.
Hypocrisy is claiming you want to grow the economy while clinging to the dying coal industry with bills mandating that power plants maintain stockpiles of coal (SB 542), and hamstringing the burgeoning renewable energy industry by imposing draconian bonding requirements — in the name of avoiding repeating sins of the past by assuring solar and wind operators won’t abandon their facilities as coal operators have done and continue to do.
(Because, as we know, once solar and wind operators have extracted all the light and wind, they don’t hesitate to abandon their facilities and walk away from their investments.)
Hypocrisy is passing a bill exempting guns and ammo from sales taxes (HB 2499) while pondering the restoration of sales taxes on food.
Perhaps the most infuriating and cowardly moment of this most infuriating and cowardly session came when the Senate rejected by a two-vote margin an amendment by Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, to extend the sales tax exemption to also cover purchases of gun safes, gun locks and other firearms safety devices, an exemption that Baldwin said would add a mere $50,000 to the projected $1.4 million in lost annual tax revenue.
“Fifty-thousand dollars for gun safety devices that will save lives,” said Baldwin, pastor of Ronceverte Presbyterian Church. “Fifty-thousand dollars to keep a child from finding a weapon.”
Yet, the mere acknowledgment that firearms pose any sort of potential hazard that would make the use of safety devices prudent was regarded as being too anti-gun for 18 senators. Sens. Mike Azinger, Craig Blair, Donna Boley, Charles Clements, Amy Grady, Bill Hamilton, Robert Karnes, Mike Maroney, Patrick Martin, Mark Maynard, Rupie Phillips, Roberts, Patricia Rucker, Randy Smith, David Stover, Chandler Swope, Dave Sypolt, Eric Tarr and Jack Woodrum, that red on your hands might not be ink. It might be blood.
If there were a West Virginia Legislature version of MSNBC television host Joy Reid’s “The Absolute Worst” segment, Delegate Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, would be featured.
As noted here last week, earlier in the session, Steele followed up his “voting for a racist bill doesn’t make you racist” floor speech on behalf of Confederate statuary with a positive diagnosis for COVID-19 after having glad-handed his way through all manner of receptions and dinners the prior week sans facemask.
Building to an Absolute Worst crescendo last week, Steele browbeat senators over HB 2694. The bill would require state law enforcement officers to refuse to enforce federal gun safety laws that are stricter than the tattered cheesecloth of state gun laws. Law enforcement officers warn the legislation would effectively defund police units by making them ineligible for federal funding or to be able to work cooperatively with federal authorities. Steele encouraged senators to ignore that warning.
Steele threatened members of the Senate Government Organization Committee, telling them: “Either you like this bill or you don’t. Either you like gun rights or you don’t. Either you’re going to stand with your constituents’ Second Amendment rights, or you’re going to fall in line with the bootlickers in Congress that want to take your 30-round magazines, and want to take your semi-automatic rifles from your citizens.”
(Frankly, if you’re a hunter and you need a 30-round magazine and a semi-automatic rifle, you probably need to work on your aim. If you need the same for self-protection, you probably need to ask yourself how you managed to create so many mortal enemies.)
Meanwhile, as the legislative supermajorities try to reach agreement on a plan to give massive tax breaks to the wealthiest individuals and corporations in the state, the House and Senate descended on an already austere state budget to make spending cuts to various programs, agencies and services in anticipation of the plunging revenue collections the tax cuts will create.
In looking for easy targets, our largest institutions of higher education, of course, were first and foremost in the crosshairs. (After all, they indoctrinate impressionable young minds into becoming liberals, they opposed legislators on campus carry bills and, what the heck, they can just raise tuition again to make up for the cuts.)
While the House budget plan (HB 2022) cuts general revenue funding to Marshall and West Virginia universities by a total of $28 million, it dedicates the same amount to the schools out of anticipated 2020-21 budget surplus to make both institutions whole.
(Of course, that means in future base budgets, WVU will start with an $18 million shortfall, and Marshall will start $10 million short.)
However, for his coup de grace, Steele co-sponsored an amendment to strike the sections in the budget bill designating the two schools are to receive the total of $28 million from budget surplus. That would have cut state appropriations to WVU by 10.8% and Marshall by 12.2%.
Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed, and the House did not take up the amendment.
Notable, however, that both WVU President Gordon Gee and Marshall President Jerome Gilbert have spoken out this year and in the past against campus carry legislation.
Finally, have to say it was curious at the time when during one of his public appearances touting his income tax cut/shift plan, Gov. Jim Justice compared himself to the Founding Fathers, saying, “Many of them lost all their riches, but they stepped up to serve.”
I’m no expert on the Founding Fathers, although I just finished reading Thomas Ricks’ excellent “First Principles,” and while I’m aware that some (James Madison, James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson) had lost some of their wealth by the time of their deaths (Social Security and Medicare having not yet been invented), I’ve not read about any of the Founding Fathers who lost the entirety of their fortunes while in public service.
Last week, however, we got a clue as to what Justice’s rumination was all about, when Forbes magazine unceremoniously removed Justice from its list of billionaires, with an article entitled, “Gov. Jim Justice no longer a billionaire, after $850 million debt to insolvent Greensill Capital revealed.”
The two most telling excerpts from the article:
“The Greensill case has captivated Ben Hunt, who in early March wrote a trenchant analysis of what he considers dirty doings at Greensill on his wonky Epsilon Theory site. Says Hunt, “What really surprised me about the Justice case is that it basically says, ‘We were engaged in bank fraud’” — his assessment of the legality of borrowing against fake invoices from fake customers. Justice admitted that they make up these prospective receivables to borrow against because nobody would give them against their actual business.”
Also, “There are not a lot of bright spots in the Justice family empire. Last year the PGA Tour permanently canceled its longtime stop at the Greenbrier Hotel, which Justice bought out of bankruptcy in 2009 and has struggled to renovate since devastating 2016 floods. Justice has been fighting since then with insurance adjusters and claims to have put more than $200 million into renovations, though it needs much more.”
This raises another issue that I’ve been curious about for years.
The vast majority of Justice’s large collection of businesses are headquartered not in West Virginia, but in Roanoke, Virginia. That includes a lot of the biggies, including Bluestone Energy.
In 2012, according to news accounts, Justice bought the former Bank of America office building in downtown Roanoke for $2.1 million to consolidate those various company headquarters in a centralized location.
In a Roanoke Times article about the purchase, son Jay Justice talked about moving the headquarters of Southern Coal Corp. from Beckley to Roanoke, saying, “The market pool for higher-qualified people here is better, just by the sheer size of the city.”
Imagine if, instead of investing in Roanoke, Justice had chosen to, say, buy Huntington Square in downtown Charleston, and move his companies and jobs here.
It doesn’t appear that there’s any big tax advantage to locating his headquarters in Virginia. According to the Tax Foundation’s 2021 Business Tax Climate report, West Virginia ranks 22nd for business tax climate, while Virginia is 26th.
The Justice family does, however, have ties to southwestern Virginia. Jay graduated from Virginia Tech, and the governor’s daughter Jill graduated from the School of Osteopathic Medicine in Blacksburg, Virginia.