I have a sneaking suspicion that the 2021 legislative session will be known as the session where bad ideas came to roost.
The worst of those ideas already has resurfaced: Phasing out the state personal income tax.
As a panel of budget and policy experts assembled by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy put it Thursday, pushing this terrible idea is “inexplicable.”
First, the whole premise for the tax cut is misguided: Eliminate the tax, and 400,000 new residents will pour into the state over the next decade.
Been there, done that. In 2008, legislators slashed corporate net and business franchise taxes and eliminated the sales tax on food. The cuts were sold on the premise that the improved “business climate” would bring companies flocking to the state.
In reality, they blew a $400 million-a-year hole in the state budget, resulting in languishing public schools, soaring college tuition and crumbling roads and infrastructure. In the six years since Republicans took control of the Legislature, nearly 50,000 West Virginians have voted with their feet and left the state.
And those cuts are child’s play compared to what Gov. Jim Justice and legislative leadership want to do this session.
In the current budget, income taxes are projected to bring in $2.155 billion, or 47% of the total general revenue budget.
In most states, there are three main buckets for state and local funding: Income, sales and property taxes. West Virginia’s property taxes are artificially low and are locked in by the Constitution, the action of well-meaning but shortsighted legislators at the height of the Great Depression.
That leaves only the sales tax as a way to make up revenue cuts. As the Budget and Policy panelists noted, making up $1 billion of the lost income tax revenue would require a state sales tax of 10.3% — by far the highest in the nation. And that still leaves $1 billion a year in budget shortfalls.
When Justice and the Senate last took a stab at phasing out the income tax, in 2017, they came up with an 8% sales tax, but one that would have taxed professional services and a variety of other currently tax-exempt goods and services.
Even with that, and with restoration of the sales tax on food, that plan came up $1 billion a year short, and it died in the House of Delegates as plans to fill that gap failed to materialize.
We can look to other states as cautionary tales, particularly Kansas, which took the same income tax cut route in 2012 in what was promised to be a “shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy.”
Predictably, the jobs never came, and the tax cuts did catastrophic damage to the state, leading legislators there to repeal the cuts and enact tax increases in 2017. Oh, and in 2018, the heavily Republican state elected a Democrat as its governor.
Advocates of the income tax cut here may have ulterior motives.
There are extremist Republicans who equate taxation with armed robbery. There are others who would like to shrink government to a size where it can perform only the most rudimentary functions.
Others simply might be doing the bidding of their corporate overlords, whose goal is to strip as many resources out of the state as possible while contributing as little to the state as possible.
In 2017, wiser heads prevailed. In 2021, many of those wiser heads are no longer in the Legislature.
Of all the troubling images from the Capitol insurrection, perhaps the most troubling was a photograph of a rioter carrying a Confederate battle flag through our most significant beacon of democracy. (And Confederate flags were numerous among the insurrectionists.)
During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers never breached the Capitol, and yet, some 155 years later, this symbol of hate, oppression, and white supremacy found its way into those marble halls.
It’s time to face up to the fact that part of President Donald Trump’s appeal to his most avid supporters is his racism, and that as president, Trump validates their own racist beliefs.
Trump has been a racist all his adult life, going back to when he and his father systematically denied New York City rental properties to people of color. Even after a group of teenagers known as the Central Park Five were exonerated on convictions they’d assaulted a jogger — a serial killer later confessed to the crime — Trump called for them to face the death penalty. He promoted birtherism in an attempt to delegitimize America’s first Black president. He announced his candidacy with a speech attacking Hispanics. And so on.
In a video circulating on social media last week, Trump supporter/insurrection attendee but presumed non-participant Sen. Mike Azinger, R-Wood, in a 2016 floor speech, bemoans that, “In 1965, in the ’60s, America started veering off course.”
Besides being the year that Azinger was born, 1965 saw passage of the Voting Rights Act, a year after passage of the Civil Rights Act. The ’60s also saw the rise of feminism and the anti-war movement.
In other words, the ’60s were the beginning of the end of the predominance of white males in society and politics.
I’ve been constantly bemused by interviews with Trump supporters who inevitably say they like him because “he tells it like it is.”
Tells it like it is? How can that be when virtually everything he says are lies, fabrications or exaggerations?
Could it be that what they’re saying is that Trump validates their own racist, sexist, homophobic beliefs?
At some point, as a society — and particularly as West Virginians — we need to address that issue.
Speaking of, a longtime advocate for the removal of the Stonewall Jackson statue and bust from the Capitol grounds and Capitol rotunda says he plans to unfurl a Confederate battle flag during Justice’s inaugural speech Jan. 22.
Howard Swint, frustrated by his inability to schedule a face-to-face meeting with the governor, said he was motivated by seeing the insurrectionists carrying Confederate flags during the siege of the U.S. Capitol.
“After what happened in Washington with the Confederate symbolism, we’re going to continue to do this?” he said of Justice’s inaction on removing the Jackson statue and bust from the Capitol grounds.
Swint said of his planned protest, following years of getting nowhere with the Justice administration, “Maybe we’ve been too docile and not moving the needle, so we need to step up.”
He said he plans to burn the flag at the foot of the Jackson statue.
As an aside, Swint said he did not have a Confederate flag and they are no longer sold by online retailers such as Amazon.
I surmised that if he sought out flea markets or general stores in the hinterlands, he would probably find a Confederate flag or two for sale.
Sure enough, Swint told me he only had to go as far as Marmet to hit the motherlode.
Finally, I took back-to-back calls Wednesday from folks apprehensive about Justice arbitrarily lowering the eligibility age for COVID-19 vaccinations to 70, when thousands of 80-plusers (an age group that Justice referred to as the “super-elderly”) have been unable to get their shots.
I talked to Robert Sylvester, who came in from Columbus to help his age 80-plus parents navigate the complexities of arranging for their vaccinations. He said the current system, where one is expected to wait for a vaccination clinic to pop up near them, then hope to get queued up for one of the limited number of reservations for vaccinations, is extremely frustrating.
Complicating matters, he said, is that most members of the 80-something age group are not particularly adept at using the internet. After all, they were already in their 50s or 60s when the technology went mainstream.
He said the comparative youngsters in their 70s are much more comfortable using high tech and might effectively jump the line when it comes to getting vaccinations.
“They do not have a plan to take care of the most vulnerable among us,” said Sylvester, clearly frustrated by the whack-a-mole nature of tracking down vaccinations.
Just as he acted impulsively when he abruptly announced vaccine eligibility for 80-plusers, resulting in lines outside of health departments, Justice impulsively announced Wednesday that he was lowering the eligibility threshold to 70 — undoubtedly to be able to say West Virginia had reached that age level ahead of other states.
Justice threw a fit at his Wednesday briefing, evidently because he thought I had buried the lede regarding West Virginia having the nation’s highest percentage of vaccination doses administered.
I led my COVID-19 briefing article Tuesday with Justice’s confirmation that legislators were getting priority vaccinations — something we had heard was occurring, but per usual, had been unable to get a response from the governor’s press office.
Though impressive, West Virginia’s high percentage of doses administered is probably more a factor of being a small state with a relatively small number of doses received (38th in the U.S., according to Bloomberg’s Vaccine Tracker).
Other states with high percentages of doses administered all have small populations: North Dakota, South Dakota, Rhode Island.
A deeper dive shows that West Virginia’s top ranking is more akin to being valedictorian of summer school. We look good compared to the wretched response nationally, courtesy of the Trump administration’s complete botching of the vaccine rollout.
In the first month, about 6.5% of West Virginians have been vaccinated, according to Bloomberg. While obviously considerably better than the 3.3% national average, at that pace, the last West Virginians should get their shots sometime in March. March 2022.