Gov. Jim Justice has finally called for a long-promised special session of the West Virginia Legislature, only it’s not at all about what he said it would be about.
Last month, Justice said he’d call a special session to codify the state’s stance on abortion after Roe v. Wade was overturned. The U.S. Supreme Court decision left West Virginia following a law from the 1800s that deemed abortion a felony for both patient and doctor, along with a host of contradicting laws passed in more recent times.
Initially, Justice expressed a great deal of urgency on the matter, and then, for weeks, there was nary a peep from the governor or legislative leaders, other than Justice repeating that he’d call a special session to address the matter. During this same time, Kanawha Circuit Judge Tara Salango correctly granted an injunction against the state’s ancient law banning abortion, noting the tangled mess of contrary laws that limit the practice but, in so doing, establish that the procedure is legal. The injunction is being appealed by the state Attorney General’s Office.
So, Wednesday, Justice finally called a special session — to push his proposal for reducing the state’s personal income tax.
Keep in mind, special sessions are agenda specific, and the only item on the agenda is Justice’s tax proposal. So, neither he nor the Legislature can just tack abortion on there and get around to it. It’s mind-boggling that Justice would call a special session on income taxes and delay outlining a plan so the state doesn’t automatically follow an archaic law that goes back to before West Virginia was formed — a time when taking a belt of scotch and biting on a stick while someone sawed off an infected limb was the frontier of modern medicine.
However, there are some notions as to why Justice and the Legislature, controlled by a Republican supermajority that is, by-and-large, extremely anti-abortion, would take this approach.
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Possibly, they’d rather see the issue play out in court. Part of the attorney general’s argument for enforcing the abortion ban that goes back to the 1840s is that contradictory laws were passed while Roe was standing with the intent to restrict access to abortion. That’s not a good legal argument, but it might be good enough for the state’s new appellate court, or, should it come to it, the West Virginia Supreme Court.
This would solve another possible concern, which is the Legislature and the governor looking like a bunch of Neanderthals who don’t really care about what happens to a child after its born. It’s very possible that the current Legislature could come up with something particularly draconian that makes sure a birth occurs, tossing away any pretense of concern for circumstances like sexual assault or the health of the mother (all so they can say they’re pro-life) while also legally and socially brutalizing any woman who seeks an abortion.
Make no mistake, this is what some legislators want to do. But Justice and legislative leadership just might be self-aware enough to know that looks bad with a general election a few months away. Abortion is a lightning-rod topic with a lot of potential political juice, but when it comes down to it, most West Virginians think it should be legal in at least some circumstances.
Besides, Republicans can always play nice now and go another route after November. Remember when Justice and many Republican candidates were for LGBTQ equality before the 2020 election? That sentiment disappeared in record time after ballots were cast.
Cutting taxes before an election makes sense, too, from a political standpoint. It’s not as if the GOP is any danger of losing control of either the House of Delegates or the Senate, and Justice isn’t on the ballot, nor can he run for governor again in 2024. Greasing the skids before an election can’t hurt, though, even if cutting the income tax actually helps the ultra-wealthy like Justice, disproportionately saddles more of a burden on the middle class and the poor and blows a huge hole in a state budget currently propped up by federal stimulus funds.
Justice doesn’t want West Virginians to overthink the details. Cutting taxes just sounds good, especially during an inflation crunch in a poor state.
It’s possible there are other motivations at play for this seemingly jarring misplacement of priorities. Justice might call for a special session on abortion at any time, but that seems unlikely. It’s easy to talk about outlawing abortion but, just by taking a look at what’s happening around the country, anyone can see doing it is very complicated. That’s because the issue is more complicated than most would like to acknowledge.