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.