I was trying to find a word that sums up the 2021 legislative session, and after much consideration, it came to me: Despicable.
Despicable, in that the Legislature committed acts of cruelty for no reason but the sheer pleasure they derived from doing so.
They passed a despicable anti-transgender bill simply to make a group of young people feel more isolated, more shunned and more misunderstood than before, in the name of addressing a purported problem that does not exist (HB3293).
Gov. Jim Justice seems adverse to veto this hateful piece of legislation, even with the knowledge its enactment will cost the state millions of dollars in lost NCAA events that will be moved to more tolerant locales.
The Senate rejected, and the House receded from an amendment to a bill requiring the teaching of history and civics courses to include study of “the treatment and contributions of historic minorities, including African American, Native American and women,” because that ran counter to their despicable intent to teach a whitewashed version of American history focused solely on the contributions of white males and free of discussion of the blemishes, flaws and corruption that are part of our nation’s past and present (SB636).
Putting despicable prejudices and politics ahead of science and compassion, they passed legislation that will all but prevent new needle exchange programs, even as Charleston is experiencing a surge in HIV cases linked to intravenous drug use (SB334).
Justice despicably and cowardly signed the bill into law the same day he received it, without giving the more than 300 health care professionals who opposed the bill the opportunity to make their case for a veto, even though he had until April 28 to act on it.
Showing a despicable lack of compassion and concern, legislators removed a program to revitalize and economically diversify struggling coalfields communities from a bill that mandates power plants maintain stockpiles of coal simply because legislators find even making the merest concession to the fact that coal isn’t coming back to be heresy (SB542). The omission was especially despicable since the revitalization provisions would have had no impact on the primary intent of the bill.
Meanwhile, terrified by comments that supposedly frail, senile President Joe Biden made in the Rose Garden, legislators despicably modified Sen. Charlie Trump’s measured rewrite of an originally horribly despicable Second Amendment Protection Act (HB2694) to, among other things, prevent courts from issuing and law officers from enforcing “red flag” laws, directives to temporarily remove firearms from people when family members show those people pose a risk to themselves or others.
That is as callous and heartless as refusing to take a friend’s keys and drive him home after he’s had too much to drink because one can’t infringe on his right to drive, even if there’s a high likelihood that he will cause harm to himself or others.
Because of their fealty to gun nuts, the Legislature’s actions will result in many otherwise preventable deaths by firearms, which is despicable.
Legislators also behaved despicably during the session, with accounts of legislators making multiple vulgar and crude comments to one another, including an incident referenced by Justice during a news conference on the last Friday of the session, during which Justice himself resorted to making crude and disparaging comments about the House of Delegates.
(Shortly after, the House flipped a middle finger to Justice with a 0-100 vote to deliver the final deathblow to his income tax cut and sales and consumption tax hike bill. I think that’s the first time in my 32 sessions that I’ve seen a vote board go entirely red, which I took as an omen that it might be time for me to move on.)
Senate Finance Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, acted particularly despicably with a video announcing that he and other Senate Republicans would not be giving interviews to broadcast news outlets for, in his words, their spreading of “cartoons full of falsehoods.”
Tarr clearly was peeved that the West Virginia Broadcasters Association was running ads that accurately noted he was supporting what would have been the largest tax hike in state history. (Broadcasters had a valid concern about the legislation since, depending on which version of the tax shift passed, they could have been forced to charge as much as 9.5% sales tax for advertising spots.)
Accounts are that, after initially refusing to meet with broadcasters to hear their concerns, Tarr launched into an extended, profanity-filled harangue to open the meeting.
Discourse in state politics has sunk to the level of a legislator accusing colleagues of tasting genitalia, as well as Justice’s allusion that the House’s 0-100 rebuke was the equivalent of exposing one’s buttocks.
Cruelty, vulgarity and incivility are relatively new traits among state Republicans and are traits lacking in old-school Republican legislators like Sens. Trump, Donna Boley and Eric Nelson, among others, who hold to traditions of civility, respect, and bipartisan collaboration.
On a national level, one could certainly disagree with the politics of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush or George W. Bush 43, and still be willing to sit down with them for a proverbial beer. Not so with the current crop of GOP officials at both the state and national level.
Presumably, the newer Republican legislators are emulating the headline-grabbing vulgarians on the national scene, including the likes of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Jim Jordan and Matt Gaetz, among others.
They also seem to be taking their cues (and basing their legislative agenda) on the boorish, hateful demeanors and divisive, extremist politics of commentators such as the late Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. At any rate, our Legislature sunk to a new level of despicability this session.
Although AWOL for much of the last day of the session, Justice did put in an appearance Saturday evening for the traditional end-of-session remarks by the governor, during which he pulled out $1,483 in cash, which he said “could have gone to every single West Virginia household, as an average, across the state,” had the House passed his tax plan.
Either Justice is playing dumb or he thinks the West Virginia people are so stupid they can’t comprehend how averaging works, and that in this case, the average amount is skewed because of the disproportionately large tax breaks that would go the wealthy.
As calculated by the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, Big Jim’s claim of $1,483 for every household (and a chicken in every pot?) is nonsense.
Households making $35,000 a year or less would pay more in taxes (necessitating Justice’s proposed refund checks).
People in the middle 20% ($35,000 to $55,000) would save all of $38 a year – nowhere close to Justice’s claim of $1,483 — and even households making up to $89,000 would see savings of only $1,049.
The real savings is for the top 1 percenters in the state (incomes of $413,000 plus) who would pocket $12,146, as well as the next 4% ($177,000 to $413,000), who would save $2,989 a year.
For Justice to claim he wants nothing for himself, while trying to convince West Virginians of the falsehood that each household will collect $1,483 when, as the wealthiest man in West Virginia (but not a billionaire), he would see a disproportionately enormous benefit from repeal of the income tax is despicable.
Justice needs to put away his silver platter of bull manure and level with West Virginians about his tax plan – beginning by disclosing exactly how much he will personally benefit from elimination of the income tax.
Speaking of income taxes, I was reminded that in 1983, then-Gov. Jay Rockefeller backed legislation that revamped the state income tax system, replacing a flat 6% tax with a multiple-bracketed system with tax rates ranging from 2.1% to 14.5%.
The top bracket kicked in at $120,000 (about $320,000 in today’s dollars).
Millionaire Rockefeller signed legislation that significantly raised his taxes because he knew it was the best thing for the state. Millionaire Justice is pushing legislation that would significantly benefit himself, even though he must know it would almost assuredly blow holes in the state budget, requiring severe cuts to state programs and services, a la the Kansas Experiment.
I don’t recall any uproar when the upper tax bracket went to 14.5% and could find no news articles from the time with leaders panicking over the possibility the tax rate would drive thousands of West Virginians out of the state (as the income tax elimination will supposedly attract hundreds of thousands to relocate here).
The progressive tax rates lasted only four years, when Arch A. Moore Jr. marched back into the governor’s mansion and proceeded to cut all manner of taxes, including reducing income tax brackets to the current levels. (And, as Justice has done, Moore prided himself on passing “flat” or reduced state budgets year after year.)
Two years later, the state was broke, doctors and hospitals were refusing to accept state health insurance cards and when Gaston Caperton moved into the governor’s mansion, he found shut-off notices from utility companies for unpaid bills.
Finally, while this despicable legislative session provided many reasons for people to leave West Virginia, the HBO documentary “Our Towns” reminded us of the many reasons to stay in Charleston.
The documentary reminded us that Charleston is a remarkable town, with remarkably talented people, featuring remarkable venues ranging from Appalachian Power Park to Taylor Books, and with a spirit and determination not found everywhere.