As a rule, election-year legislative sessions in West Virginia generally eschew controversy. That, along with prospects that state tax collection will remain flat this year, could make for a relatively low-key 2020 regular session of the Legislature.
The 60-day regular session convenes at noon Wednesday, and the first day will be highlighted by Gov. Jim Justice’s fourth State of the State address in the House chamber at 7 p.m.
The Governor’s Office did not provide a preview of Justice’s speech, which, in the past three years, has been unscripted.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, previewed legislative priorities last Friday at the West Virginia Press Association’s annual Legislative Lookahead.
They indicated that top leadership priorities will be a proposed $100 million rollback of personal property taxes on manufacturers’ equipment and inventory, and the establishment of an intermediate appeals court.
“For more than 30 years, people have been talking about getting rid of this tax,” Carmichael said of the inventory tax. “We want to be the Legislature that gets rid of it.”
Both issues perennially top legislative wish lists of state business interests but have collapsed in the face of insurmountable challenges in the past.
A key stumbling block with the inventory tax rollback is that property taxes fund school boards and county commissions, and the loss of $100 million a year in revenue would be devastating to public schools and county programs statewide.
The latest proposal would require the state to make up lost property tax revenue to counties, although it has not been made clear what funding sources would be used to make counties and school boards “whole.”
Rolling back the tax would require an amendment to the state constitution, and a resolution to put the issue on the November ballot requires two-thirds majority passage votes in both the House and Senate.
Likewise, past efforts to create an intermediate appeals court have stumbled over costs of operating it — with estimates ranging from $3 million to $4 million annually to as much as $10 million to $11 million a year — as well as a declining caseload for the state Supreme Court over the past decade.
Hanshaw also said the House will look at scaling back occupational licensing requirements and at improving ways to bail out people awaiting trial on nonviolent crimes, to reduce regional jail costs.
Any legislative initiatives requiring new funding could be a challenge this session. Depressed natural gas prices, and falling demand and prices for coal, have contributed to a $33 million year-to-date shortfall in state tax collection, and Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy told legislators Monday to expect revenue to be flat for the remainder of the budget year.
As part of his State of the State address, Justice will present his proposed 2020-21 budget to the Legislature.
To date, Justice’s speeches to joint sessions of the House and Senate have been colorful, featuring props including white boards, celebrity videos and cheerleaders, along with folksy anecdotes on such topics as the Frankenstein monster and 18-carat dog messes.
The 2020 regular session ends at midnight on Saturday, March 7.