Question: When is a special session of the West Virginia Legislature not so special?
Answer: When nothing happens.
So, here is what happened — I mean didn’t happen — last week in Charleston.
Gov. Jim Justice called lawmakers into special session last Monday to consider his tax plan, which he had revealed just 19 days earlier. Justice invoked a sense of urgency for lowering the personal income tax brackets by an aggregate of 10% as a start to the eventual elimination of the tax.
“Cutting our personal income tax will put money in your pocket and bring prosperity to our state for generations. But we need to act now, especially when you consider the unbelievable economic growth we’ve achieved this year,” Justice said.
However, the tax plan ran into trouble as soon as legislators arrived. Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and Senate Finance Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, who had been working on their own tax cut plan, said the governor’s announcement caught them by surprise.
Blair and Tarr wanted to wait for voters to approve an amendment to the state constitution in November that would empower the Legislature to remove personal property taxes on business equipment and inventory, along with the annual vehicle tax.
Meanwhile, House Republicans wanted to use the opportunity of the session to pass a bill outlawing abortion. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision sent the abortion issue back to the states. West Virginia’s old law criminalizing abortion was being argued in the courts, so pro-life lawmakers wanted to clarify the prohibition.
The emotional abortion debate quickly dominated the session. Everyone was talking about specifics of the abortion bill. Should there be exceptions for rape and incest, and if so, how narrow should those exceptions be? Should there be criminal penalties for doctors who break the law?
The House and Senate could not agree, Republicans and Democrats could not agree, moderate and conservative Republicans could not agree.
The House rushed through Justice’s tax bill, but that plan never got a sniff in the Senate, where Blair and Tarr have been planning for their tax cut. Justice’s special session call was so specific that the best the Senate Republicans could do was pass a resolution in support of their own tax plan.
This is what happens in a special session when the groundwork has not been laid. There was plenty of heat last week, especially on abortion — impassioned speeches, an emotional public hearing, contentious galleries and protests — but not much light.