West Virginia’s Budget Disgrace

The soap opera in Charleston appears to be over. After failing to come together on any meaningful changes for increasing revenues or reforming the tax structure, the Legislature adopted a “bare-bones” budget that cuts more deeply than ever into valuable state programs. This was a default to the lowest common denominator and a failure of statesmanship. It defers many important questions for a later Legislature. One Delegate said that the budget was the result of “complete and utter dysfunction.” The process wasted everyone’s time and money.

While there is blame to go around, this result was the product of opposing positions taken by members of the same political party. Senate Republicans insisted that there would be cuts to personal income taxes or nothing. House Republicans insisted on broadening the sales tax base and were suspicious of income tax cuts in a deficit environment. Week after week neither side moved. The Democrats were impotent on the sidelines and the Governor lurched from one folksy hyperbole to the next, offering some bone-headed proposals of his own. The whole process was a disgrace.

The Legislature gathered in general session knowing in advance that revenues in the state’s General Revenue Fund were projected to fall short of the spending level from last fiscal year. The shortfall was roughly $500 million. There has been agreement on both sides of the aisle that tax reform will be necessary for West Virginia to stabilize and increase revenues and avoid volatility in our budgeting.

But for many Republicans, particularly a Senate faction led by Robert Karnes (R, Upshur), tax “reform” meant radical reductions to the personal income tax, the largest single source of state revenue. Karnes and his crowd actually think that cutting income tax for wealthy “job creators” will raise revenues.  By allowing these people to keep more of what they make, reasons Karnes, they will leap into action, juicing up business and the economy. This widely debunked nonsense was exposed most recently by the Kansas experience where substantial income tax cuts put the state’s economy into the toilet.

Karnes and the Senate Republicans labored under a false belief that also afflicted House Republicans. It can be reduced to a simple equation: tax = bad. In an environment where we needed more revenue to avoid harmful cuts, only the House Republicans were willing to put their toe into the water to find new revenue sources. Even then, House Republicans wanted to add new items upon which to levy sales taxes rather than raise the tax rate itself, presumably so they could then claim they didn’t raise taxes. They rejected a Senate bill because it “amounted to a tax increase.” The conservative Tax Foundation, which followed the situation in West Virginia closely, said “It would almost be easier to enumerate the taxes the legislature didn’t consider as possible solutions to the budget shortfall over the past few months.”

West Virginia has well-documented problems. On just about any measure of successful governance we are last in the country or very close to it: per capita income, workforce participation rate, educational attainment, health indicators and obesity, opioid addiction. You name it. Governor Justice’s initial proposed budget recognized that important spending on education and social programs had to be retained in order to ensure that we did not become a failed state. But later he seemed to lose his head by aligning himself with Senate Republicans and their income tax cuts, presumably on the theory that even a bad idea is better than no idea. In the end he lost respect from everyone, even members of his own party.

The best summary of the cuts our FY 2018 budget will make versus the spending from FY 2017 (which itself involved cuts from prior years) has been provided by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.   The budget cuts $7.5 million from colleges and universities and $2.5 million from community and technical colleges. Public broadcasting was cut nearly $1 million, the line item for the Division of Culture and History was cut 14%, and the West Virginia Commission on Women, the Division of Educational Performance and the Tobacco Education Program were all completely defunded.

We need some new thinking and new leadership who recognize that good government is expensive and that we cannot cut our way to prosperity. If West Virginia is determined to elect Republicans to majority roles in the House of Delegates and Senate, these public servants need to rise above squabbling among themselves, reject the latest fashion in right-wing economic theory, and a find a way to grow revenues over the long haul. Yes, that might mean even raising taxes, which West Virginians would welcome if we applied the revenue toward solving some of our many problems.


The Carbon Dividend: An Environmental Proposal to Consider

In February 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a blow to the Obama Administration’s climate centerpiece, the Clean Coal Plan. The Court put a hold on federal regulations to implement the Plan that would have curbed carbon-dioxide emissions from power plants. These emission reductions were the main way the U.S. proposed to meet its commitment under the Paris Climate Accord. The legal case attacking the Clean Power Plan was commenced by West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, among others . Then President Trump doubled down by “withdrawing” the U.S. from the Paris Accord, claiming that our commitment forced American workers and taxpayers to absorb the cost “in lost jobs, lower wages, shuttered factories, and vastly diminished economic production.” Now given the hostility of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to the mission of that agency, it is hard to be optimistic about our chances for avoiding climate disaster. Where do we go from here?

At least one suggestion has come from an unlikely source. Several elder Republican statesmen have come forward with a proposal for a gradually increasing carbon tax imposed at the first point that fossil fuels enter the economy – the well, mine or port. The tax might start at $40 per ton. The revenue from this tax would be returned as a tax-free dividend to each American with a social security number in periodic checks or direct deposits. At $40 per ton the dividends would be $2,000 for a family of four in the first year. The initial proposal is that all of this tax revenue would go directly to dividends – none would be diverted to other purposes, even to climate R&D.

Among the proponents of this plan are James Baker, George Schultz, Lawrence Summers and Henry Paulson, all senior former government officials and thought leaders in the country. They rightly assert that “[t]he opposition of many Republicans to meaningfully address climate change reflects poor science and poor economics.” For them, the Carbon Dividend is a way for the GOP to return to the environmental achievements of earlier Republican administrations and properly align itself with voter sentiments.

Since the Plan was initially proposed in February 2017, it has attracted support from Exxon-Mobil, BP, General Motors, Pepsico, Proctor & Gamble and many other huge corporations. The value for these organizations comes in the form of better public relations, fewer “command and control” regulations and an end to federal and state tort liability for emitters. We should also not discount the possibility that the corporate executives making the decision to support a Carbon Dividend are concerned about the future of the planet like the rest of us.

In any event, the Carbon Dividend proposal shouldn’t be skeptically received simply because it is favored by some Republican conservatives and large carbon emitters. In order to achieve the critical national purpose of controlling greenhouse gasses we will need everybody on board. Instead, the Plan should be evaluated first on whether it would make meaningful reductions in greenhouse gasses and then on whether it could generate sufficient political support for adoption.

The increasing tax on production of carbon-based fuels will make them more expensive relative to renewable energy sources. This tax-created advantage for renewables would spur their use. The higher cost of products made with fossil fuels would be passed on to consumers in the form of higher gasoline prices and electricity bills. Consumers would gradually demand cheaper products and energy from renewable sources.

The dividend feature would also, in theory, encourage more responsible consumption on an individual level. The dividend would be calculated by dividing the total tax revenue by the number of recipients in the taxing jurisdiction. Although this is not explicitly stated, presumably the amount of the dividend would be calibrated to meet the additional cost of fossil fuel products incurred by the consumer. A consumer would be rewarded by reducing his or her carbon footprint, because by doing so the positive spread between the dividend and the higher cost of energy-related goods would increase. It is estimated that approximately 70% of Americans would come out ahead.

But it seems that the real beauty of this proposal is the way it addresses the psychological resistance people have to acting in their own best interest on the climate issue. A white paper published by New America explains this point. The threat of global warming lacks immediacy, seeming to be remote and disconnected from everyday lives. It is difficult to convince people to endure costs now that will benefit others in fifty years. The dividend provides immediate benefits for behavior that is required to secure a much larger, though long-term benefit. It fundamentally alters the cost-benefit time horizon and it would make political support for adoption much more likely.

Is a Carbon Dividend plan politically possible? It would be certain that powerful political interests in states heavily involved with fossil fuel extraction – West Virginia, Texas, Wyoming, Louisiana, and others – would be opposed. Without a “silver bullet” a Carbon Dividend plan would have no better chance than a cap and trade scheme. In other words, no chance. But the dividend might just be that silver bullet. By immediately distributing a financial incentive to support the plan directly to voters, the Carbon Dividend would pay us to do what we should want to do anyway.

There is, of course, the problem of workers whose jobs might be lost because of the decline in fossil fuel industries. This is a problem that exists now for coal miners due to cheaper natural gas prices and automation. A Carbon Dividend Plan would hasten the demise of these industries. Hard as it is for many in West Virginia to accept, the necessity for an effective national response to climate change may require some decisions that have unpleasant local effects. These local effect cannot be the tail that wags the dog.

The West Virginia Budget Crisis

Remember the large budget deficit that confronted West Virginia lawmakers at the start of the legislative session? One estimate in November 2016 was that in FY 2018 (beginning July 1, 2017) we would generate only $4.055 billion in revenue, roughly $500 million short of anticipated spending. That brought many legislators to Charleston for the general session prepared to strip spending down to a bare minimum and force the state “to live within its means.” Fortunately, those views softened when confronted by political reality.

Now projected FY 2018 revenues are about $40 million better than first predicted due to an improving coal market and a $33 million transfer from general revenues to the Workers Compensation Fund that won’t be made. But the remainder of the budget shortfall hasn’t disappeared. How the shortfall will be closed is the subject of a House and Senate conference committee meeting today. So far, the fiscal and political stress created by the shortfall has caused Governor Justice and quite a few legislators to behave as if any idea – even a demonstrably bad one – is better than nothing.

June 12 is the sixteenth day of a special session devoted to this project. The extension to allow the conference committee to meet expires on June 13 and if a solution is not reached immediately the tax reform effort may be abandoned entirely. The two opposing camps are the Governor and Senate Republicans — who want to reduce income taxes — and nearly the entire House who want to raise sales tax rates and coverage without reducing income taxes.

Neither approach is progressive. Sales taxes hurt lower and middle income citizens who have no choice but to spend almost all of their income on taxed items. Because income taxes are generally paid more heavily by wealthier citizens, the proposed income tax reductions coupled with the sales tax increases would result in an overall tax decrease for the wealthy but an overall tax increase for lower and middle income taxpayers. According to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, the plan lowers taxes on the top 20% of West Virginia households and increases taxes on the remaining 80 percent of households.

Nevertheless, a sales tax increase seems likely to be in any budget deal. But it is uncertain what the new rate will be. The conference committee is now considering an increase from 6% to 6.5%. Whatever higher rate is chosen, it would be applied to previously untaxed items such as telecommunications services, digital goods, electronic data processing services and health fitness memberships. The 6.5% rate is projected to raise $96 million in FY 2018 and $106 million in FY 2019.

Beyond that, the thinking of the Governor and the Senate Republicans has come unmoored. They want to reduce income taxes by 7% in FY 2018 and in similar amounts staged over coming years. What should trigger these further reductions has been the difficult issue. Senate Republicans have only agreed to this “modest” series of reductions in income tax because opposition to their original proposal was fierce. An income tax reduction is the brain child of Sen. Robert Karnes (R, Upshur), a conservative ideologue, who headed the Senate Select Subcommittee on Tax Reform. You may wonder how a reduction in income tax collections will close the budget gap?

You’ve heard the Republicans’ answer before – tax cuts will lead to more growth and job creation, which will lead to higher tax collections. The problem is this theory has never worked. While there may be some small growth benefit in tax cuts, it never amounts to as much as the tax revenue lost. This played out painfully over a decade in Kansas, which finally abandoned its tax cutting regime by adopting tax increases passed by a Republican legislature over the veto of Republican governor Brownback.

But it is Governor Justice who has gone the furthest into fantasyland. After properly opposing massive spending cuts that would have rendered West Virginia a shell, Justice has gone over to the income tax views of the Senate Republicans in order to get a deal. He defends their position because “just think of how far they’ve come” from their original proposal to cut income taxes 30%. In other words, we should all support a bad proposal because it is not insane like the first one.

Governor Justice has engaged in what can only be described as weak and illogical explanations for his positions. He acknowledges that increasing sales taxes may swamp any benefit low and moderate income taxpayers would get from a reduced income tax. But then referring to that reduction he asks why we wouldn’t want to “give money back to the guy mowing the grass?” When pressed he has further supported the reduced income tax idea by suggesting it would be “a great move for our image and a great move to potentially bring people to our state.” Don’t bother looking for any hard numbers.

Governor Justice also has urged the adoption of a tiered coal severance tax that would generate less tax revenue when coal prices are low and increased revenue when they are high. The net impact would be a $49.9 million reduction in severance tax collections for FY 2018. This proposal is either the result of strong coal industry lobbying or faulty thinking, or perhaps both. Surely other industries in the state with greater economic impact than coal, such as healthcare, would benefit from favored tax treatment. This is just one more example of pandering to extractive industries that do not represent our future.

So in the end, how does Governor Justice believe the budget gap will be closed? He predicts an additional $100 million in tax collections from economic growth that will result from the tiered coal severance tax and his $2.8 billion infrastructure spending plan. This guesswork, called “dynamic scoring,” is so speculative it would make Donald Trump blush. There are easily a hundred ways that this tax revenue could fail to materialize even if the infrastructure plan is pursued. This is why state budgeting based on estimates of economic growth is considered unsound.

Governor Justice once appeared to be the sensible, stable player in the budget and revenue battles. Now he seems to be the chief inmate in the asylum.