Day 30 of the 60-day regular session of the Legislature was marked by an unusually frank assessment of the state of the state by a long-serving legislator who is not seeking re-election this year.
Speaking at the West Virginia Press Association’s annual Legislative Breakfast, House Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, commented, “We need to be honest about where we are, and where we need to go, and not talk about how great we are, because things are not great.”
Miley, who is in his 16th year in the Legislature, and served as House Speaker from 2013-15, offered a frank assessment of the state’s loss of population and school enrollment, its failure to effectively diversify its economy, and prospects for state budget deficits for the next several years.
He was particularly critical of two key leadership initiatives for this session, a proposal to phase out the personal income tax on manufacturing equipment, machinery and inventory, and to establish an intermediate appeals court for civil suits.
Miley said the proposed tax cuts “could bring the state to its knees,” taking $100 million a year away from public school systems and county governments.
As for an intermediate appeals court, Miley commented, “Our population is declining, our caseload is declining, so what do we do? We want to implement another layer of the court system at a cost that just elongates the legal process.”
Miley, speaking at the breakfast event at the state Culture Center, offered a counterpoint to more upbeat comments from House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, and particularly Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Ripley, who stated, “We live in a state that is on the rebound.”
Hanshaw, meanwhile, said he believes legislators on both sides of the aisle share a common goal, “to make it easier for people to stay in West Virginia.”
Earlier in the week, the state budget itself was the subject of controversy, with January tax collections showing either a $13 million surplus, or a $13 million shortfall – depending on who was doing the counting.
“Our numbers continue to show that West Virginia is in good financial health, pacing very close to last-year’s record-breaking numbers,” Gov. Jim Justice said in a statement, while Senate Finance Chairman Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, offered similar comments on the Senate floor.
By their count, state revenue collections of $437.53 million for the month exceeded revenue estimates by $12.99 million.
However, others – including Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, in comments on the Senate floor – pointed out that it took some creative accounting to put the state revenue numbers in the black for January.
That included a $20 million cash infusion from the treasurer’s office – from unclaimed property and banking services surpluses – announced by Justice and state Treasurer John Perdue on January 13, along with the Justice administration rolling back revenue estimates for the month by $6 million.
Take away those adjustments, Romano noted, and instead of a $13 million surplus, the state budget finished $13 million in the red for January. Romano suggested that it shaky financial ground for proceeding with the inventory tax rollback – an issue currently pending in Senate Finance Committee.
Also at the Capitol:
— For the second year in a row, a resolution for a proposed amendment to the state Constitution to reign in the state Supreme Court’s ability to intervene in legislative matters failed to draw the required two-thirds majority for passage, on a 20-13 vote.
The resolution stems from a 2018 Supreme Court decision that halted impeachment trials against Justice Margaret Workman, and former justices Robin Davis and Allen Loughry on the grounds the House of Delegates had overstepped its constitutional authority, and had made fatal procedural errors in the process.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Charlie Trump, R-Morgan, said the constitutional amendment is necessary, saying the 2018 decision gives judges the precedent to halt other legislative proceeding in mid-session.
— Legislation intended to give cities and counties financial incentives to consider metro government consolidations passed the Senate for a second year in a row (SB 138).
In 2006, the Legislature enacted the Consolidated Local Government Act in hopes of encouraging cities and counties to take advantage of economies of scale through consolidation, but to date, no consolidations have happened.
The bill would provide a number of financial incentives to encourage consolidation, including offers from the state to pay 10 percent of employee pension fund premiums for 10 years, and to pay 10 percent of counties’ Regional Jail expenses for 10 years.
The bill goes to the House.
This column shared by the West Virginia Press Association with its member newspapers.