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.