At the Capitol: A look back

By Phil Kabler - Contributing columnist

(Editor’s note: This columns references events which took place in the last week of the regular, legislative session.)

With the controversial campus carry bill shot down in Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, with passage Thursday of the Senate’s keynote bill to provide free tuition to community colleges, and passage of the 2019-20 state budget bill a day later, the last night of the 60-day 2019 regular session of the Legislature Saturday lacked the typical drama and fast pace.

With a number of key issues already adopted or defeated, a major focus on the final day was on tax breaks.

In a matter of hours, the House and Delegate passed and sent to the governor three tax cut/tax rebate bills, providing tax relief to coal companies and senior citizens.

Changes made in the Senate to the House’s keynote bill, to exempt Social Security retirement income from state income tax, prompted a long and heated debate in the House (HB2001).

The Senate amended the bill to cap the exemption at $50,000 of gross income for single filers, and $100,000 for couples filing joint returns. That was to address concerns that the bill otherwise would mainly benefit high-income retirees, while also cutting the amount of tax revenue the state will lose when the tax cut is fully implemented from $50 million a year to about $25 million.

The Senate also changed the legislation to phase in the tax cut over three years, with the first year’s tax savings to West Virginia senior citizens coming in at only about $2 million.

Many delegates saw the Senate amendments as breaking a key promise delegates made to constituents, and caving in to the Senate on the House’s key issue of the session.

“The House’s position was to eliminate this tax on senior citizens, not to cap it,” Delegate Isaac Sponaugle, D-Pendleton, complained. “This tax should be eliminated in its entirety.”

Many wanted to refuse to accept the Senate amendments, and place the bill in a House-Senate conference committee to try to restore the full exemption, a strategy that Delegate Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, warned would be a “high stakes game of chicken that could leave our seniors without tax relief.”

With the 2019-20 budget bill already passed the Legislature and on its way to the governor, delegates had no leeway to amend the bill, since the $2 million of tax relief for the coming year was already built into the budget.

House Finance Chairman Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, warned that any changes to the Social Security bill would force Gov. Jim Justice to either veto the budget bill outright, or eliminate funding for other projects by line-item veto in order to keep the state budget balanced.

Ultimately, the House concurred on the Senate amendments on a 52-44 vote, then passed the bill 97-0, sending it to the governor.

The House also passed and sent to the governor bills to give larger tax cuts and tax rebates to the coal industry, including a bill to phase-down the severance tax on steam coal used in power generation from 5 percent to 3 percent over three years (HB3142).

Coal industry representatives argued that the cut of about $20 million in the first year, and about $60 million a year when fully implemented, is needed to make West Virginia coal price competitive.

Economists, however, told the Legislature that the tax cut, at best, will only slow an ongoing decline in stream coal production and employment as electric utilities continue to convert to cheaper, cleaner forms of energy, including natural gas.

“We’re spending $60 million a year to create very few jobs,” Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, complained, referring to industry estimates that the tax cut would create about 400 mining jobs – a price-tag of about $150,000 per job per year.

Earlier in the week, the key contentious issue of campus carry died when the Senate Judiciary Committee, on a 7-9 vote, rejected the bill (HB 2519).

The vote, with Sens. Charles Clements, R-Wetzel, and Ryan Weld, R-Brooke, joining with committee Democrats to oppose the motion to advance the bill, followed a subdued review of the controversial measure in which there were no amendments offered and no discussion of the bill’s pros or cons.

Afterward, Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert said he was encouraged that the senators had listened to college and university faculty, staff and students statewide who had opposed the bill, holding rallies both at the Capitol and on campuses to call for its defeat.

“We feel like the Senate Judiciary Committee has listened to the universities, listened to the faculty, staff and students that have said, “We don’t want guns on our campus,” he said.

Meanwhile, although the regular session is over, the House and Senate immediately gaveled into a special session that eventually will address Justice’s call for public education reform – and to enact promised pay raises for teachers and school service personnel that were lost in the regular session.

The special session recessed Sunday morning and will resume at a time to be determined, probably in May or June.

By Phil Kabler

Contributing columnist

By Phil Kabler of the Charleston Gazette-mail wrote this column for the West Virginia Press Association which made it available to its member publications, including the Point Pleasant Register.

By Phil Kabler of the Charleston Gazette-mail wrote this column for the West Virginia Press Association which made it available to its member publications, including the Point Pleasant Register.