During three decades of covering the Legislature, I note that some things never change, and one is that legislators become generous in election years.
It doesn’t matter if Democrats or Republicans are in charge — in recent memory, the best Santa Claus act was by Republican Gov. Cecil Underwood, who in 2000 boosted the governor’s civil contingency fund to $22 million (about $33.5 million in 2020 dollars) and then handed out nearly every bit of it, a few thousand dollars at a time, on the campaign trail.
This session, there are a number of bills making their way through the legislative process that have some hefty fiscal notes attached and vary from the much-needed to the unnecessary.
Just hitting on a few, that includes: reforms and enhancements to foster care ($17 million); an intermediate appeals court ($7.6 million, although many say costs will be much higher); judicial pay raises ($5.6 million); and Medicaid dental coverage (state share, $8.8 million, but higher utilization could push that to $22 million).
While not all those bills may become law, and the appeals court appears mired in the House of Delegates again, that’s $39 million right there.
That’s not a huge amount out of a $4.5 billion state budget, until you recall that 2020-21 revenue collections are projected to fall, creating a $108.6 million budget deficit.
While that’s not good, that deficit figure may be optimistic, given current budget woes.
Through January, state tax collections are running $20.5 million below estimates, and that’s with some creative accounting that included a one-time $20 million cash infusion from Treasurer John Perdue and Gov. Jim Justice moving the goal line by reducing revenue estimates for the month by $6 million.
Otherwise, a $13 million surplus for January would have been a $13 million shortfall, and the year-to-date budget deficit would have been $33.5 million.
I’m guessing February will be a dismal month for tax collections, what with a combination of a mild winter nationally (remember in December, when Deputy Revenue Secretary Mark Muchow said the best Christmas gift West Virginia could hope for would be a bitterly cold winter to boost demand for natural gas and coal?), the coronavirus grinding economies in China and Asia to a near-halt and the acceleration of the death spiral for the coal industry.
Meanwhile, hospitals in the state recently have been the canaries in the coal mine regarding the realities of our rocket-ship (or is it a lightning bolt?) economy with the closure of Ohio Valley Medical Center, the pending closure of Fairmont Regional Medical Center and the bankruptcy reorganizations of Thomas Health Systems and Williamson Memorial Hospital.
From what little I understand of the issue, the gist of the matter is that the main healthcare payers in the state — Medicare, Medicaid and PEIA — all get deep discounts that apparently do not adequately cover costs of providing care.
Clearly, that’s a symptom of not having sufficient numbers of well-paying private-sector jobs with good benefits, including health insurance.
What is most troubling is that these hospitals are not concentrated in one region of the state, like the southern coalfields, but are distributed throughout the state, including in one of the two positive economic regions of the state, North Central West Virginia.
It all shapes up as a case of having too many commitments and not enough money when it comes time to put the 2020-21 state budget together.
It’s not very often that a bill sponsored and advocated by a Senate president goes down in flames, let alone that a president puts his bill up for a passage vote knowing it is doomed to defeat, but that’s what happened Wednesday to Senate President Mitch Carmichael’s proposal to defund some $17 million a year of state greyhound racing subsidies (SB 285).
Early in the session, the bill looked like a sure-bet. After all, it had the backing of the Senate president, promise of a strong media and lobbying campaign by national organization Grey2K USA, and was essentially identical to a bill that passed the Legislature in 2017, only to be vetoed by Justice. Besides that, putting $17 million on a silver platter is irresistible to many legislators.
Trouble surfaced, however, with the rumor that Senate Democrats were thinking of voting as a bloc against the bill, not so much on humane grounds, but over concerns of what legislative leadership might do with that freed-up $17 million.
The bill had been held over reportedly to allow leadership to craft an amendment to bifurcate the bill to allow Wheeling Island — which had vocal greyhound racing supporters both in and outside the Senate — to keep racing, and allow racing at Mardi Gras to shut down.
(Since the Nitro dog track only generates about a third of the live wagering that Wheeling Island does, that would have freed up a limited amount of the subsidy money, not half of the $17 million a year.)
However, I gather that Kanawha County commissioners got word to senators that if Ohio County was going to be allowed to keep its racing jobs, Kanawha County wanted to keep its jobs, as well.
It’s notable that Carmichael, R-Jackson, kept the bill on the agenda, knowing that if Senate Democrats did, indeed, vote as a bloc, just three “no” votes from Republicans would kill the bill on a 17-17 tie.
Those votes were all but assured, since Sens. Michael Maroney, R-Marshall, and Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, had been outspoken against the bill, while the third Republican senator from the northern panhandle, Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, had voted against the legislation in 2017.
Facing near-certain defeat, Carmichael had procedural options at his disposal to save face, including moving the bill to the Rules Committee or recommitting it to the Finance Committee, among other parliamentary procedures.
Yet, he moved forward with the vote, and not just to have the right to say, “I told you so” down the road, but to put senators on the record when the time comes later this session that new programs go unfunded or underfunded because that $17 million is literally going to the dogs.
Nonetheless, the 23-11 vote to reject, with nine Republicans crossing the aisle, was a crushing defeat for Carmichael.
I suspect Carmichael is taking the same approach to a resolution for a constitutional amendment (SJR 9) to remove a variety of personal property taxes from the Constitution in order to phase them out, providing another tax break to out-of-state corporations. Since voters would have to approve the amendment via referendum in November, leadership sweetened the deal by also proposing to repeal the personal property tax on motor vehicles.
Adoption of the joint resolution requires a two-thirds vote in both houses, or 23 votes in the Senate.
Friday’s vote on an amendment by Democrats to limit the resolution to motor vehicles doesn’t bode well for passage Monday, with Sen. Sue Cline, R-Wyoming, joining all 14 Democrats in voting in favor of the amendment, which was narrowly rejected, 17-15.
Assuming that gives Democrats cover to vote against the resolution Monday, that would leave it at least three votes short of adoption.
Finally, speaking of Carmichael, his opponent in the May primary election, Delegate Jim Butler, R-Mason, put out a House Current Resolution that might well be called the Un-Fairness Act.
It contends there is no compelling state interest to extend civil rights protections to the LGBTQ community, which it contends is a “secular humanist church,” and it further would bar government entities from everything from recognizing same-sex marriages to displaying rainbow flags.
I’m certain that if you searched legislative journals from Deep South states in the 1950s and ’60s, you would find similar resolutions contending there is no compelling state interest to extend civil rights protections to members of the African American community.
It’s a shame that in 2020, playing to the bigotry of others is not only a campaign strategy, but a potentially viable one in many parts of the state.
Meanwhile, we keep wondering why our best and brightest keep leaving the state in droves.