If Gov. Jim Justice’s shirts look a little brighter and more starched than usual, it’s because the West Virginia House of Delegates took him to the cleaners Friday.
That morning, Justice harshly criticized the House during a news briefing for delaying a vote on the Senate’s plan to reduce and repeal the state’s income tax.
A few hours after his public tantrum, Justice got his vote. The House defeated the bill, with all 100 members voting against it. That never happens. Even when most of the House agrees on something, there are one or two dissenters or, if nothing else, a few absences. It was the strongest rebuke the House could have sent without setting the bill on fire on Justice’s front porch and ringing the doorbell.
House Bill 3300, as returned to the House from the Senate, was bad legislation, and state delegates knew it. The Senate’s amended version of the bill would have offset an eventual $2 billion in lost revenue from the income tax with myriad tax hikes elsewhere — including a big jump in the state’s sales tax rate. As amended, the bill barely made it out of the state Senate, 18-16, with five Republicans crossing the aisle to vote against it. Republican leadership broke legislative rules in ramming the bill through without a fiscal note on how it would impact the state budget.
The original version of the bill passed in the House, which did include a fiscal analysis, would have phased out the income tax over a period of about 12 years, reducing it by $150 million per year. That wasn’t a good bill, either, as House Republicans promised that mythical concept of lowering taxes without new or higher taxes elsewhere. That hole in the budget likely would have been plugged by severe funding cuts to state agencies and services. Still, the Senate’s plan — which adhered closely to Justice’s original proposal — was much worse and likely would have devastated the state financially much sooner.
Friday’s shellacking of Justice’s preferred plan showed that, even with a GOP supermajority in the House and Senate and a Republican in the Governor’s Office, nothing is a done deal and there’s plenty of infighting.
Repealing the state’s income tax was the highest item on the GOP agenda heading into the 2021 session, and they couldn’t get it done. Not only were the two legislative chambers miles apart in their approaches, neither plan was universally approved by Republican legislators in the Senate or the House.
Making it personal was a huge mistake on Justice’s part. The governor hasn’t approached any other legislative initiative with nearly the same fervor since he took office in 2017, and it got away from him Friday. Justice’s biggest weakness, his thin skin, caused him to lash out, belittling his colleagues in the House of Delegates. So, instead of negotiating or even letting the bill die quietly in committee, House leadership decided to show the governor just how much they disapproved of the bill, and Justice’s behavior.
Some form of income tax repeal could come back during a special session, but the mood in the House has certainly soured, and their actions along with Justice’s words might have done irreparable harm to the topic — at least for 2021.