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West Virginia State Capitol

CHARLES TOWN – Trimming taxes and regulations, expanding parental choices in public education and promoting greater broadband access are among the top goals for Republicans reconvening the West Virginia Legislature on Wednesday with supermajorities in both legislative chambers.

“We’re going to very much prioritize what we’re doing,” said Delegate Paul Espinosa (R-Jefferson), the majority whip for the House of Delegates. “The things that we think are going to have the greatest impact on West Virginia we’re going to try to get to first.”  

Espinosa said the coronavirus outbreak could possibly cut short the 60-day legislative session that’s planned. If that happens, whatever they might not accomplish this year, Republicans will return with the same veto-proof majorities in next year’s general assembly.

“A lot of it is going to depend on where we are with the pandemic,” Espinosa said of a coordinated plan between Republican lawmakers this year in the House and Senate. “We just don’t know for sure.”

GOP lawmakers control the Senate with a 12-vote margin and dominate the House with a 54-vote margin. Both vote margins are two-third majorities that can override any veto Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican, might impose.

In West Virginia, if the Legislature is still in session when the governor vetoes a bill, a simple majority vote of Senate and House members will override the veto. If a budget or supplemental appropriation bill is vetoed, a two-thirds vote of both chambers will override the veto.

Espinosa offered assessments appearing last week before the Jefferson County Commission and last month during a Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce forum.

State Sen. Patricia Rucker (R-Jefferson) and Del. Wayne Clark (R-Jefferson) participated in the county commission discussion. John Doyle (D-Jefferson) joined the chamber forum. Sen. John Unger (D-Jefferson) did not attend the commission discussion or the chamber forum.

Common Ground?

Rucker, chair of the Senate Education Committee, said she plans to spearhead new legislation to provide more and more flexible educational options for parents; remove obstacles for hiring teachers; improve the efficiency of state school funding “so that the money goes where it’s needed”; and increase accountability for school districts.

“There are several bills being worked all under those four major priorities,” she said.

All of the county’s state delegation members said they supported continuing to look for opportunities to raise teachers’ pay. Espinosa also pointed out that state lawmakers recently enacted two of the largest teacher and state employee pay raises without raising taxes.

“As our budget permits I would certainly support trying to do more,” he said.

However, just as important as increasing pay for teachers, Rucker said, many classroom educators tell her they’re discouraged because they lack the support from administrators to serve students as they know how to as trained professionals.

Too many teachers feel they are “not being treated with respect,” not empowered to perform their jobs as knowledgeable professionals, the senator said.

“We need to look beyond just salaries,” she said, “because, honestly, the salaries are just one important aspect.”

In response, Rucker said a new channel of communication is being established for teachers to contact state lawmakers about their ideas, issues, solutions and problems. “Teachers who are on the frontlines; they have issues that they face that we all don’t necessarily understand,” she said.

As a Democrat outnumbered by Republicans, Doyle said he has legislative measures in mind that he thought lawmakers from either political party could and would support.

Doyle said he is developing legislation to help make voting easier, such as measures to encourage counties to expand their early voting locations and to use early voting ballot drop boxes.

He said he hopes to introduce legislation to strengthen regulatory groundwater protections. Such legislation would help safeguard water wells in areas such as Jefferson County where “karst” geological terrain sinkholes can allow surface water to contaminate underground water, he said.

Most residents as well as municipal and private-sector water utilities in Jefferson County rely on water taken from wells, Doyle pointed out. “Our regulations in West Virginia to protect groundwater are not nearly strong enough,” he said.

Doyle said he wanted residents who install solar panels on their homes to receive a discount or credit on their utility bills, a benefit residents in other states often receive.

A House education committee member, Doyle said he wanted to adjust legislation enacted last year requiring high school students to receive personal financial education. That personal financial instruction now occurs in civics classes. He said that should change so that personal finance teaching doesn’t detract from the two years of civics instruction secondary students must take to graduate.

“Personal finance is important, but it’s not civics,” he said.

Cutting Taxes

Addressing the biggest legislative ambitions for Republican lawmakers, Espinosa and Rucker said achieving personal income and corporate tax reductions and reforms—“Put more dollars in our people’s pockets, including our job creators,” as he put it — that lawmakers have discussed but failed to adopt for years was also possible.

Clark, owner of Locust Hill Golf Course in Charles Town and beginning his first term in the House, voiced urgency for tax and relief targeting small businesses struggling during the pandemic. “We have to act now and quickly on this or else we’re going to continue to lose small businesses,” he said, “and then we’re going to be in a serious tax deficiency because we’re not going to have that sales tax revenue.”

Doyle agreed with the Republicans that small businesses should be offered more help to sustain themselves through COVID-19 restrictions. “I don’t know how much we can afford but my suspicion is that we can afford something,” he said.

Lawmakers will know how much tax-cutting might be possible when more budget and revenue information becomes available soon after the legislature convenes. How much the pandemic may affect what lawmakers can do this year will be known then, Rucker said.

However, Doyle, serving his 25th year in the legislature, cautioned that reducing taxes has repeatedly proven difficult for lawmakers over the years. Lawmakers can easily and widely agree on taxes to cut, he said. But such action has fallen apart when lawmakers, regardless of their political parties, can’t decide what government spending must be cut to allow for tax cuts.

“Even people who agree with tax reduction end up not agreeing with each other about which programs need to be cut or eliminated,” Doyle said. “I’ve seen that ever since I was first elected in 1982.”

To reach a deal on cutting taxes, he said, lawmakers have sometimes been forced in the past to increase certain taxes to reduce or eliminate others.

“There are ways that we can probably more efficiently collect the amount of money we collect now,” he added. “But that’s done a lot more easily than reducing the amount of money we collect now than  figuring out what we’re not going to spend on.”

Rucker agreed with Doyle about the political difficulties in cutting taxes without raising others, but she nonetheless said having this year’s legislature offers more possibility that lawmakers can find wasteful government spending to eliminate.

“A lot of things that we care about — like education, like better salaries for state employees — all of those things depend on a good and thriving economy,” she said, “and that requires us to look at what possible tax policies are hurting our economy, are keeping us from growing, are keeping some areas of the state from being able to take more advantage of their resources and what they have.”

Controlling the rate of state government growth will create an opportunity for tax reductions, Espinosa said. The state has been consistently collecting about $200 million more each year in taxes than the year before, he said.

“While we’re declining in population and we’re trying to reverse that decline in population, let’s not keep growing government,” he said.

Increasing the “homestead” property tax break given to senior residents was one longstanding tax reduction proposal that might be adopted this year or next, Espinosa said. Eliminating personal property taxes for corporations — taxes sometimes corporations are allowed to avoid under special economic development agreements — would be another challenging tax-cutting priority to accomplish, he said.

Wiping away personal property taxes, Espinosa said, would reinforce tort and regulatory reforms that lawmakers already enacted to improve West Virginia’s environment for businesses.

But Espinosa acknowledged that both of those tax reform proposals have been opposed in the past by lawmakers from rural counties that rely on those taxes much more than the state’s more urban areas.

“These are tough things to do,” he offered. “Ultimately, will there be tough decisions we have to make if we’re going to move forward with personal income tax reform? Absolutely.

“If it was easy, it would have probably been done years ago.”

On cutting regulations, Espinosa and Rucker expressed optimism that Republicans can reduce unproductive regulations, or extend regulatory waivers adopted during the pandemic. Their ideas for regulatory changes were incremental rather than sweeping.

Rucker pointed out that Justice relaxed some regulatory registrations on alcoholic beverage sales to help some restaurants and taverns stay afloat during the pandemic. She said the success of the governor’s temporary lifting of alcohol regulations has shown how legislation she previously introduced to streamline and modernize West Virginia’s alcohol control laws would help many small businesses, without creating problems from lax alcohol regulation.

Espinosa said he wanted to make permanent regulatory barriers lifted to help hospitals conduct telemedicine during the pandemic. He said taking more steps to reduce the thousands of hours of job experience West Virginia requires of various trade workers to receive master licenses in their fields — as an example, plumbers having to have more hours of job training than pilots or nurses do to receive their licenses — would help many workers seeking better paying jobs.

“There are ways we can relax regulation without adverse effects on the public but that also make it easier for businesses to operate,” he said.

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