Back in 2016, when the newly Republican-controlled Legislature was pushing a bill to allow people to use religious beliefs as grounds for discrimination, many Charleston businesses put stickers on their doors stating, “All Kinds Are Welcome Here” to show they were open to all, regardless of what kinds of bigotry were being perpetrated at the statehouse.
If the 2021 legislative session had a motto, it would be “One Kind Welcome Here,” as Republican supermajorities have sent the message loud and clear: If you’re not a white, Christian heterosexual conservative, you’re not welcome in West Virginia.
Example: Legislation that would effectively make it illegal to remove or relocate Confederate statuary is moving forward (HB2174), even though all speakers at a public hearing made clear that they find the bill to be a repugnant endorsement of symbols of white supremacy and Black repression.
No one spoke in favor of the bill, similar to how Republican members of the House Government Organization Committee mostly were silent during debate on the bill, before all voted to advance it to the House floor.
Proponents of the bill claim it just creates a mechanism for removing Confederate and other monuments and memorials from public places, although clearly that mechanism already exists for statuary on the Capitol grounds in the form of the Capitol Building Commission.
That’s despite Department of Art, Culture and History curator Randall Reid-Smith’s absurd claim that the commission’s authority over all “substantive physical changes to the grounds and buildings of the state Capitol complex” somehow does not extend to statuary since the pertinent state Code does not specifically cite the word “monuments.”
(The Code also doesn’t specifically refer to “trees,” but the commission spends a good bit of its time determining whether to permit removal of damaged or diseased trees on the Capitol grounds and approving what types of trees are to be planted to replace them.)
Instead of an independent commission making decisions about statuary, the bill effectively puts that responsibility on the shoulders of the director of the State Historic Preservation Office, a will-and-pleasure employee who heads a division whose budget (including state historic preservation grants) is controlled by the Legislature.
As timid as the Capitol Building Commission (under the fearless “leadership” of Reid-Smith and Gov. Jim Justice) has been in responding to calls to relocate the Stonewall Jackson statue and bust from their current prominent locations in the Capitol complex, you can be darn certain that a bureaucrat isn’t likely to put his or her job (and agency funding) on the line by defying the will of the legislative supermajority.
During a virtual public hearing on the bill last week, speaker after speaker explained how abhorrent Confederate monuments are to the African American community; how they were erected in the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras not to honor the war dead but to exalt white supremacy and intimidate the Black population; and how West Virginia’s embrace of a law essentially making their removal illegal (while also prohibiting the renaming of schools, buildings, and public places named for Confederates) will perpetuate stereotypes of the state as being backward and racist.
Though their points were strong and valid, it won’t make a difference as far as the Legislature is concerned.
One thing I’ve learned in three decades of covering the Legislature is that public hearings rarely change minds or votes, and this one seemed particularly futile, given that only one legislator bothered to attend the session.
I’m afraid that for the legislative supermajorities, optics be damned, they’re determined to placate the MAGA crowd of constituents who’ve been fed a steady diet of cancel culture propaganda on Fox News or Newsmax.
Likewise, legislation to outlaw transgender athletics in interscholastic sports is moving right even though the only evidence that it is an issue in West Virginia is the constant state of outrage on Fox News and Newsmax.
Meanwhile, with the end of this week being the deadline to get bills out of committee and to the respective House and Senate floors in time for passage by crossover day (day 50 of the session), bills to expand the state Human Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender equity as protected classes (SB254, HB2538) and to enact the CROWN Act, prohibiting discrimination based on hair texture and hair style (SB108, HB2698), languish in committee.
In a session when a record number of bills have had to win approval of only one committee in order to advance to the House or Senate floor, all House and Senate versions of the bills have double committee references, with the exception of the Senate version of the anti-LGBTQ discrimination bill.
The CROWN (“Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair”) bill is all of two sentences long, begging the question of why it requires the scrutiny of two committees in each house when, for example, a complex 30-page bill weakening licensing and training requirements for five different building trades was single-shotted through both houses.
As a story by Gazette-Mail reporter Joe Severino showed, a unanimous Charleston City Council resolution and Capitol rally have been insufficient to get the CROWN Act moving in an unempathetic Legislature.
The Legislature’s inaction on both bills speaks loudly: Your kind is not welcome here.
Back in 2017, as part of an ongoing series “highlighting the best vacations destinations you’ve probably never considered,” The Washington Post did a travelogue on Charleston. It provided a glowing account of what it found to be the city’s surprisingly eclectic arts, music and restaurant scene, along with must-see stops such as the Capitol complex, Taylor Books and the Carriage Trail.
Despite the positive coverage, I recall that many of the readers’ comments were unfavorable, with many commenting that they would not vacation in a red state.
(I was tempted to respond by pointing out that the parts of Charleston featured in the travelogue — downtown, East End and the Elk City section of the West Side — are as blue as the critics’ hometowns.)
If the theme of this session, at least from Justice’s perspective, has been to start steps to reverse the state’s population drain and to begin attracting those mythical 400,000 new residents to the state, nothing about this session would change the minds of those who commented on the Charleston article.
In touting his (as I predicted, DOA) tax shift plan, Justice in his too-frank-for-his-own good way said the two most important factors in getting businesses and people to come to the state are good schools and good roads.
As noted last week, in U.S. News and World Report’s latest “Best States” rankings, West Virginia ranked 45th for education and 50th for infrastructure.
That’s before the Legislature took a fiscal battering ram to public education, with charter schools and Hope scholarship legislation potentially blowing a billion-dollar hole in state funding for public education.
And because to the supermajorities, settling old scores is paramount, the Legislature this session passed a variety of bills that metaphorically give a big old middle finger to teachers, teachers’ unions and education in general.
While legislators might have given teachers their comeuppance for having the audacity in 2018 and 2019 to leave their classrooms and come to the Capitol to confront them for broken promises for better pay and secure health care benefits, this session gave professional educators no reason to stay in West Virginia, and certainly no reason to move here.
Likewise, the Legislature passed several cut-and-paste American Legislative Exchange Council bills designed to weaken unions and the building trades. Republican supermajorities thus were able to settle scores against union PACs that campaigned for their opponents, but how does this encourage skilled tradesman who honed their craft though years of apprenticeship to want stay or move here?
As for infrastructure, while there’s been a little headway on broadband this session, the closest the Legislature has come to improving state roads and highways this session was hearing Deputy Highways Commissioner Jimmy Wriston pledge to have all potholes filled by Memorial Day.
400,000 new residents? After this session, we’ll be fortunate if we avoid a mass exodus of current residents.
Finally, I couldn’t quite put my finger on why Justice is so adamantly gung-ho on his tax shift plan to slash, then eliminate personal income taxes, shifting the tax burden to low- and middle-income families, while blowing a $185 million a year hole in the state budget. Why has his devotion to the plan been so unbending that he has reacted to criticism of it by the state Business and Industry Council and the Chamber of Commerce, among others, as personal attacks.
Then I read Gazette-Mail reporter Scott Hamilton’s article, “Buying Bubba’s House,” outlining how Justice’s son James III bought back PGA golfer Bubba Watson’s Greenbrier Sporting Club house for $2.5 million, apparently after Watson’s endorsement deal with The Greenbrier expired.
All I know about the Greenbrier Sporting Club is what I’ve seen from the window of the Cardinal, but I can say there are some awfully nice, big houses there, particularly considering they’re second-, third- or maybe even fourth homes for most.
I suspect those million-dollar vacation homes would become more enticing if the state shifted tax burdens off the wealthy by eliminating the income tax.
According to state tax law, one can establish West Virginia residency for tax purposes by spending more than 30 days in the state “with the intention of becoming a resident” or by being “physically present” in the state for more than 183 days a year.
(“Physically present” sounds like one of those weaselly legalisms that would let the wealthy Greenbrier Sporting Club homeowners count spending even mere moments in the state as a day. I suspect a good lawyer would interpret “physically present” much the way Justice’s lawyers interpreted “reside” as being extremely liberally construed.)
For most of us, Justice’s tax plan would either be a wash or amount to a tax hike. However, if you’re fortunate enough to be a New Yorker pulling down $10 million a year, changing your residency from New York to a no-income-tax West Virginia would mean a cool $882,000 in annual tax savings.
Which makes that $2.5 million second home begin to look like a real bargain.