Wednesday evening, Gov. Jim Justice gave what was arguably the best of his five State of the State addresses.
It wasn’t a high bar to clear, but there was much less of the aimless ad-libbing that permeated his four such previous addresses. Justice laid out some policy goals for West Virginia and, in a rare move, even provided some detail on how he believes at least one — abolishing the state income tax — can be achieved.
Apparently, speaking to the public multiple times a week for nearly a year to provide updates on the COVID-19 pandemic has sharpened Justice’s communication and presentation skills. Before last March, the governor spent little time at the Capitol, and even less engaged in overseeing his own legislative agenda — with the notable exception of the “Roads to Prosperity” project.
That’s not to say there weren’t a few puzzling moments Wednesday night, but they were genuinely fewer than Justice’s previous State of the Sate addresses. And some were odd for entirely different reasons than the occasional bizarre turns of phrase or rhetorical drifting.
In fact, one of the strangest moments from the speech centered on policy and didn’t come from the governor.
Watching a livestream of the speech, it appeared Justice received an anemic response from the Legislature when he mentioned ditching the state income tax. Reporters in the room confirmed that the response was tepid.
That’s odd, because the GOP-controlled Legislature has made it clear that removing the income tax is its flagship agenda item for the 2021 session. Chances of achieving that goal are, presumably, high, with a supermajority in the House of Delegates and Senate and a Republican governor who wants the same thing.
So, why the lukewarm reception? Perhaps not everyone is of the same mind on how to get it done. Repealing the tax will cost the state $2.1 billion in revenue, slightly less than half of all revenue the West Virginia government collects. Republican legislators know that can’t be made up in cuts alone, and the tax burden will have to be shifted, most likely by an increase in the state sales tax — which will hit poorer families harder than the state’s most wealthy — combined with other increases.
Justice mentioned a sales tax increase and proposed increasing the tobacco tax and putting a tax on sugary drinks, among other hikes. He proposed starting another Rainy Day fund, as well, to make up for early budget shortfalls while the income tax is gradually phased out.
It will be interesting to see if legislative leadership is on the same page with the governor, who said his plan is negotiable. Some wrangling over who gets the credit for whatever eventually happens is possible. Not to mention the chance that, supermajority or no, some Republican legislators aren’t entirely on board with the idea.
Huge tax repeals or reductions established on the premise of attracting new residents and businesses, leading to economic growth, have proved disastrous elsewhere. A prime and very recent example is the failed experiment in Kansas, which destroyed that state’s finances, saw massive cuts to vital services, such as education, and led to a reinstatement of the taxes that had been cut.
That’s reading a lot into an unenthusiastic applause break from a speech. But the speech is over, and the legislative session is now underway in earnest. West Virginians soon will see where their elected officials truly stand on the GOP’s priorities. These things are rarely as simple as they seem in theory, once the practical process of it all begins.