Higher Registration Fees For Hybrid Vehicles – What’s Up With That?

Awhile back, a good friend of mine spent half an hour complaining to me about having to pay an additional $100 when he registered his Prius hybrid vehicle. That caused me to wonder why West Virginia would want to discourage the ownership of these vehicles with a whopping big tax.  Hybrids consume lots less gasoline and emit proportionately less greenhouse gasses from the tailpipe. That’s a good thing, right?  The answer, of course, is not so simple.

The additional registration fees for alternative fuel vehicles were first imposed in 2017.  Many states have done this.  In West Virginia, hybrid vehicles, which use a combination of gasoline and self-generated electric power, are charged an extra $100.  All-electric vehicles, which use no gasoline, are charged an additional $200.  This difference depending on whether gasoline is used turns out to be the key to understanding the policy behind these fees.

West Virginia, like all other states, uses gasoline taxes to fund the maintenance and expansion of its transportation infrastructure – roads, bridges, and the like.  West Virginia is one of only four states that has responsibility for maintaining both state and county roads.  In 2017 the combined state gasoline tax was raised to $.357 per gallon, where it remains today.  But still gasoline tax revenues have been declining for years, principally because of better fuel efficiency.

The gasoline tax is considered a use tax – until hybrid vehicles came along the gallons of gasoline sold were a rough measure of the use our highways and bridges were getting.  Because of increasing fuel efficiency driven by federal policy and alternative fuel vehicles, gasoline consumption can no longer be used as a proxy for highway use.

So it was no coincidence that both higher gasoline tax and the alternative fuel vehicle registration fees were imposed in the same year.  The objective was to even the burden of infrastructure maintenance on all vehicle owners.  When viewed this way, raising the registration fee for hybrid and electric vehicles seems fair.  And owners of these vehicles actually are better off than traditional gasoline vehicle owners if each drives the average annual mileage put on a West Virginia vehicle.

Here is the math.  I have seen several different figures for the average miles a vehicle is driven each year in West Virginia, but all of them are around 15,000.  Assume that a gasoline powered vehicle gets 25 miles per gallon, which would mean 600 gallons of fuel consumed per year.  The West Virginia tax on that gasoline would come to $214 per year.  What about the hybrid vehicle?  They get around 50 miles per gallon, so that would mean 300 gallons consumed on average per year.  The West Virginia tax on that would be $107 per year, saving this driver an equal amount per year versus the gasoline vehicle driver.  Against this tax, the additional $100 registration fee is a slight bargain.

It’s a similar bargain for all-electric vehicle drivers, who save the entire $214 in gasoline tax that a driver of a conventional vehicle would pay.  Against the $200 registration fee, the all-electric driver saves $14, enough to treat the kids to a couple of Big Macs. The higher registration fee really creates no financial disincentive for owning a hybrid vehicle, it just removes an incentive to do so.

Maybe hybrid owners should get an incentive as a matter of state policy.  An argument could be made that reducing tailpipe emissions is a worthy objective that is served by making ownership of a hybrid more attractive.  But this runs into that elusive concept of environmental justice.  If we eliminate the higher registration fees on hybrids, the cost of maintaining roads simply gets shifted to drivers who don’t own hybrids.  Maybe they own big gas guzzling trucks and deserve it.  But maybe they can’t afford to buy a Prius, which the last time I looked cost $25,000 for an entry model.  It is not good policy for a highway use tax to be converted into a tax on being poor.

Looking a little more skeptically at electric vehicles, when and why did we decide they were so good for the environment?  It might make us feel better about ourselves to drive one, but exchanging CO₂ emissions from gasoline for even dirtier emissions from generating electric power makes no sense.  A model developed at MIT shows that eliminating petroleum use by electrifying the whole transportation sector would cause the use of dirtier electric power to surge.  Overall emissions would drop only 2% by 2050.  And emissions from coal-burning power plants include lots of other bad stuff besides CO₂, like nitrous oxide and soot.

Tax policy is never simple, particularly when it is bound up with politicized environmental issues.  But at ground zero, my friend is never going to accept any of this.  He is just annoyed by having to pay a stupid tax on his hybrid Prius.  I can talk all I want, but I plan to make myself scarce next year when he registers his car again.

Death By A Thousand Cuts

The West Virginia Legislature began its main 2019 session on January, 9, 2019. All bills introduced in 2018 that were not then acted upon were re-introduced on the first day of this session. New legislative proposals have also been introduced early in this session. A review of both categories introduced in the House and Senate shows that there are several serious attempts to deal with the state’s problems.

But it also shows that many legislators are in love with tax exemptions and credits, which benefit one class of taxpayer and disadvantage everyone else. Sometimes these proposals have merit, but taken cumulatively they show the Legislature’s willingness to bleed our government of the revenue required for it to function effectively, drop by drop.

Legislators from both parties have proposed tax exemptions or credits, although Republicans have done so by a margin of roughly three to one. Here are some of the many proposals:

  • To exempt law enforcement officers from the payment of personal property tax (HB 2075);
  • To reduce the federal adjusted gross income figure used in West Virginia tax calculations for volunteer fire department and rescue squad members (HB 2208);
  • To exempt firefighters and volunteer firefighters from the payment of income tax, and real and personal property taxes (HB 2403)
  • To permit honorably discharged veterans to hunt, trap and fish without a license (HB 2030);
  • To exempt all motor vehicles from personal property tax (HB 2094);
  • To exempt the pension benefits of Department of Natural Resources police officers from state income tax (SB 12);
  • To exempt income earned by primary and secondary school teachers from personal income tax (HB 2370); and
  • To establish an income tax credit for practicing physicians who locate to West Virginia (SB 80).

For the last several years, this state has struggled with large budget deficits created because in earlier periods, when coal severance revenues were high, we reduced or eliminated other taxes. Among these were the business franchise tax and a reduction in the corporate income tax. Then the coal market, as it always does, went bust. We are now again operating with a surplus from an improved coal market and revenues from gas pipeline construction. But these sources of revenue are not permanent. Tax exemptions and credits, on the other hand, often become permanent.

Effective government costs money. Nobody likes paying taxes, but many of us like even less the failure of our government to create a successful, modern state that we don’t have to apologize for. Jim Justice is right about one thing – we are all tired of being 50th. Yet our tax choices don’t reflect an understanding of how to change this.

I am certain that cogent supporting arguments can be made by the legislative sponsors of each of the proposed exemptions and credits mentioned above. And it is difficult for opponents to argue that, say, school teachers aren’t worthy of tax relief. That sort of debate, though, is limited to the worthiness of the constituency to be favored.

What is missing is an analysis of the opportunity cost of granting exemptions and credits. What more important thing would we be able to do with the money we propose to confer on teachers or DNR police officers? There is very little of this analysis in the Legislature beyond the legislative fiscal notes, which are little more than a bookkeeping of what a proposal might cost. These fiscal notes are routinely ignored. You can be sure, however, that every nick in the general revenue fund created by a tax exemption or credit is ultimately felt somewhere else in the budgetary process.

This is not to say that tax exemptions and credits can’t be useful in achieving important policy goals, so long as they rationally fit those goals and are not one-off gifts to a particular constituency. Some of the recent legislative proposals fit well and seem worthy of enactment. For example, a refundable state earned income tax credit of 50% of the existing federal earned income credit. (HB 2108). This credit would further supplement the incomes of low and moderate income working adults. Doing that would increase the attractiveness of work and reduce the need for other public benefits like food stamps.

The idea of raising taxes is like the third rail in West Virginia politics. Nobody in the Legislature wants to touch it for fear of being punished by voters. But maybe we can be more careful about “spending” the revenues we do have on tax benefits for narrow constituencies. One way to do this is to resist the temptation to open any more small fiscal wounds in the body politic for the sake of momentary political benefit.

Going through all the bills that have been introduced in the Legislature so far, I came upon another idea. In each of the last two sessions, a bill has been introduced in the Senate proposing a five year sunset period for all tax credits in the Code (SB 23 and SB 48). Now that is a breath of fresh air.


Making Sense of the Rockwool Controversy

Plans by Rockwool (formerly Roxul USA, Inc.) to construct a 463,000 sq. ft. manufacturing facility in the City of Ranson have recently met with a firestorm of opposition. The facility, to be constructed on the old Jefferson Orchards property, will manufacture mineral wool insulation used in home and commercial construction.  Opponents argue that the plant will emit huge amounts of toxic air pollution in close proximity to schools, and claim that the approval process was intentionally under-publicized to avoid opposition. Proponents argue that this is the single largest development project in Jefferson County since the Penn National Casino, and that it will create 150 well-paid manufacturing jobs, boost ancillary business and generate tax revenue for a substantial future period. To a large extent, this has become a contest of values.

I admit that I have come to this controversy late and that there is a lot I don’t yet understand. As an observer, I was initially impressed with the maturity with which both sides approached it. Recently, however, the rhetoric from the anti-Rockwool faction has gotten rough and somewhat personal. Yet it is apparent that we are not dealing with villains on either side. One can hardly blame Rockwool for trying to develop its business in the U.S. or the JCDA for recruiting Rockwool to the county. The Rockwool project is the kind of development the JCDA has been pursuing for decades. It is what Authority members have understood their jobs to be. Conversely, the opposition is not made up of eco-terrorists determined to wreck any development initiatives. There is sincere concern about the environmental impact of this facility, as well as what it means for further industrial development in Jefferson County.

The Product and Manufacturing Process

Mineral wool insulation has become increasingly attractive in the building process because of its efficiency as an insulator and its fire resistance. Rockwool products are produced from a combination of natural basalt rock and recycled slag from the steel industry. These are melted, spun into a fiber and cured into insulation. The company claims that buildings account for 40% of all energy use, and two-thirds of that is used for heating and cooling. It argues that insulation can play a key role in reducing heating and cooling costs, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and providing a more comfortable work/living environment.

Rockwool’s November 2017 application to the WVDEP stated that the furnaces will be fueled by both coal and natural gas. Milled coal will be delivered by truck and the gas by pipeline. At that time there were no overt plans for a gas pipeline to Ranson. But lo and behold, on June 16, 2018 Mountaineer Gas announced a new route for its proposed pipeline so it could serve the Rockwool project.

All other raw materials will arrive at the site by truck and be stored in enclosures or piles. One factor not sufficiently addressed by either side, or the state of West Virginia, is the cost of wear and tear on our highways from the heavy truck traffic, which will divert funds earmarked for road repair elsewhere.

The furnaces will operate at extremely high temperatures – greater than 2,700 F. Various filtering and capture technologies will be used to reduce the emissions from the process.  But excess heat from the furnaces, as well as particulate and greenhouse gasses that are not captured or filtered, will be emitted out of two 21-story smokestacks. Molten rock and slag will be extruded from the furnace, then spun and formed into the finished wool insulation, which will be shipped out of the facility by truck.

Rockwool recycles its own waste and when fully operational the facility will deliver no waste to the county landfill. The water and much of the heat generated in the manufacturing process will be captured and re-used.

Emissions and the Permitting Process

A critical step in the approval process for a new industrial site is an application to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection for a Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) permit. A permit is required where a new facility is proposed for an area like Jefferson County that either has none of the regulated pollutants or is below the regulated maximum.

The application explains the manufacturing process and the places and manner in that process where emissions will occur. It then seeks to demonstrate that those emissions are below the limits set by federal and state regulations. This is an important point. Our federal and state governments have already decided what level of pollution is acceptable from “new sources.” If an applicant can show that its proposed facility will operate within those limits, then the regulations say the Secretary “shall” issue the permit unless there is some extraordinary reason not to do so. Many of us do not like where that leads, but that is reality.

The initial application for a permit was submitted by Rockwool on November 20, 2017. This application described the emissions expected from the facility’s operation. Public notice of the application was given in the November 22, 2017 Spirit of Jefferson. The notice, which was in the same size print as all other legal notices, listed the chemicals and particulate matter that have since become the major focus of opponents.

For example, Rockwool announced that its operations might annually emit 239 tons of nitrogen oxides, 148 tons of sulfur dioxide, 74.1 tons of carbon monoxide, 153,000 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents, 104 tons of methanol, 67.6 tons of formaldehyde, and so on. The public notice announced that written comments would be received by the WVDEP for 30 days and provided the telephone number for inquiries. This notice complied with the applicable regulation. In my opinion, opponents need to do better than to allege that Rockwool was somehow sneaky in notifying the public.  If there is any bone to pick with the process, it is with the laxity of the public notice regulations, not Rockwool’s compliance with them.

The WVDEP is required to make available for public inspection all of the relevant documents and to put another notice in a newspaper of general circulation containing the same information from the first notice, but additionally that there has been a preliminary determination in favor of the permit, soliciting public comment and providing the procedures for requesting a public hearing. This was published in the Spirit of Jefferson in March 2018. No public hearing was requested by any interested party so WVDEP did not hold one. As a state we should do better than this. Public hearings should be required for major new source pollution, not optional.

Apparently the emission amounts proposed in the application were below the permitted level in each case because the final permit, issued on April 30, 2018, approved the emissions.  Then on September 18, 2018 in response to the furor about the agency’s actions, the WVDEP issued the following statement:

There is no scientific evidence to suggest that the proposed facility will adversely affect human health or the environment. In addition to its plant in Mississippi, Rockwool has operated a similar facility in Canada for approximately 30 years. Based on the performance of the operations in Canada and Mississippi, and the WVDEP’s stringent air quality permit application review process, there is no reason to suspect that the facility in Jefferson County poses a threat to people living nearby or to the environment.

We are now left with the prospect of significant increases in toxic chemicals and particulate matter being emitted into the atmosphere at the Rockwool site, although most likely these will affect our neighbors to the east more than us. Notwithstanding Rockwool’s compliance with state emission limits, the Jefferson County environment will be considerably dirtier than before. The question is whether we value a clean environment more than the economic benefits that will accrue from the Rockwool project.

The Economic Bargain

The principal economic benefits Rockwool will bring to our community are manufacturing jobs and a substantial improvement in the property tax base that will fund schools. One thing our economy has lacked is solid manufacturing jobs for medium-skilled high school graduates. Rockwool says that when it is fully staffed, there will be 150 new jobs. A good portion of the 150 jobs, let’s say 120, will be in this category.  Others will be management and clerical jobs. Opponents argue that while all jobs are important, Jefferson County has 57,000 residents. They say 150 jobs are not worth selling our environmental soul.

Although Rockwool hasn’t disclosed a wage scale, competitive manufacturing jobs pay in a range between $15 and $22 per hour, in addition to benefits somewhere in the range of 22% to 40% of the wage rate.  So I’m figuring the annual payroll for Rockwool manufacturing jobs will be in the neighborhood of $6,500,000 ($20/hr. + 30% benefits x 2080 hrs. x 120 jobs). This money will be subject to state income tax and will circulate in the economy, boosting ancillary businesses such as grocery stores, gas stations, and the like. But it is not accurate to say that all this will be new money Rockwool brings to the county. Probably all of the people employed at Rockwool will come directly from other jobs, since unemployment is at an historic low. The new money will be the difference between what they were paid before and what they will earn at Rockwool.

In ten to twelve years, Rockwool will be paying millions of dollars of property tax to Jefferson County and the City of Ranson. Since these taxes will be based on the value of the taxed property at the time, it is hard to guess what they will be. We do know, however, that between 2020 when manufacturing operations will begin and 2030, Rockwool will pay vastly reduced taxes through what is called a PILOT Agreement. The Pilot Agreement has been approved by the Jefferson County Commission, the Jefferson County Board of Education, the City of Ranson, and several other officials.

The PILOT Agreement calls for real property tax payments of $225,000 in 2020 but no additional payments until 2026, when Rockwool will begin making escalating payments until an $815,000 payment in 2029. Presumably Rockwool will make full real property tax payments thereafter, which are not likely to be less than the 2029 amount.  Rockwool expects to install perhaps $75,000,000 in new equipment at the facility, but this will be completely exempt from personal property tax until 2028. Then the PILOT Agreement will permit personal property tax on the machinery, but will artificially lower the value of the machinery on which the tax will apply to 5% of its depreciated book value. This sounds like a sweet deal for Rockwool.

Some Conclusions

Although our decisions can’t be driven by this, it is hard to imagine any county in West Virginia – except Jefferson – that would turn down the opportunity for a facility like Rockwool, even considering the environmental impact. Most would be doing back flips to get it. Perhaps it is our relative affluence that allows us to be choosier.

So I am tempted – almost – to be understanding about the Jefferson County Commission’s role in this. When one looks around for a governmental body that could have slowed the process until everything was fully vetted and discussed, that body was the County Commission — not the JCDA which, as noted, is supposed to go out and secure opportunities for us to evaluate. Instead, all the Commission really did was climb on the bandwagon. The Commission has since issued a memo saying that it had no control over anything except whether the county signed on to the PILOT Agreement, but this ignores political reality and how much influence and control the Commission could have exerted if it had been solidly against the project.

Now some Commissioners are running for cover. Commissioner Tabb was one of the county officials who visited the Rockwool plant in Mississippi and was impressed with what she saw. But as of August 2, Commissioner Tabb changed her mind because of the citizen opposition to the air quality issue. She now opposes Rockwool. At the same August 2 Commission meeting, Commissioner Hudson said that the Rockwool situation is “starting to smell like a skunk.” Commissioner Compton also claimed he is opposed to the Rockwool project, saying “The reason I agreed to this was I essentially thought it was going to bring jobs. Did I think it was to this extent of pollution and whatnot? Absolutely not.”

It is not clear to me that anything can be done to stop the Rockwool project at this point. Permits have been issued and binding contracts have been entered. Rockwool has spent lots of money in reliance on these. If the County Commission or one of the other governmental agencies that approved the deal backs out, there will be expensive litigation and an uncertain result. Indeed, Rockwool through its attorneys sent a letter on September 12, 2018 asserting that the company would suffer damages up to $100 million if the Commission delayed the project.

What is clear is that the citizens of Jefferson County have not been well-served by our County Commissioners. They did inadequate due diligence and had no clue about about public sentiment on the environmental issues. As but one example, here is a statement in the PILOT Agreement that Peter Onoszko signed as Chairman of the JCC:

The Commission has found that the [Rockwool transactions] will promote the public interests and public purposes by, among other things, providing certainty and soundness in fiscal planning and promoting the present and prospective prosperity, health, happiness, safety and general welfare of the people of Jefferson County.

Really? That’s not going to go down well with the thousands of people who have signed up on the anti-Rockwool Facebook page and who pack public hearings night after night. Instead of owning their failure, our Commissioners profess to have been either duped or powerless. There needs to be some accountability in November.

The Future of West Virginia’s Severance Tax

In West Virginia a 5% tax is imposed on those engaging in the extraction of coal, oil, gas and other natural resources from the lands of the state. This is the “severance tax.” While the tax is ostensibly on the privilege of engaging in the business of extraction, the tax is calculated based on the volume of production. 

We depend on severance tax revenues for 10% to 12% of the general revenue budget of the state, making us more dependent on this revenue source than most other states. Our dependence subjects the state budget to boom and bust cycles caused by volatility in the price of the commodities. The state’s oil & gas industry is now booming even though coal is in the midst of a long-term decline. Most analysts believe both these trends are likely to continue for decades. So the future is bright for the state’s budget if we manage our oil & gas patrimony carefully.

West Virginia had no severance tax until 1987. Before that we taxed natural resource extraction at a higher rate through the “business and occupations tax” upon the gross receipts of the extraction business. Despite this, the extraction industries complain that the 5% severance tax rate is high relative to neighboring states. But this nominal 5% rate is reduced to an effective tax rate of around 3.2% by various exemptions and tax breaks created by the Legislature. One such break is a reduced tax rate on coal mined from thin seams. Another is a tax credit on oil & gas wells that produce a small volume. Our effective tax rate on severed natural resources compares favorably to our neighbors.

Historically the revenues from coal severance were often four times the revenues from all other severance taxes combined. Given the huge leap in gas production made possible by hydraulic fracturing, this is changing. Table 1 shows that as of 2015 tax revenues from oil and gas production represented more than half of the amount from coal production. By 2030, the revenues are expected to be roughly equal.

Table 1 – Severance Tax Revenue 2011 to 2015 (in 000s)

Source: WV State Tax Department   

Year 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015
Coal $526,817 $531,108 $451,646 $407,148 $375,558
Oil & Gas $72,947 $99,235 $115,014 $229,466 $215,362

How Severance Tax Revenues Are Allocated.

The West Virginia Center for Budget & Policy did a study of the severance tax in December 2011 that is quite helpful in understanding these issues. The CPB described how severance tax revenue was distributed in FY 2011, which is typical of distributions in later years. 

The first $24 million in severance tax revenue in FY 2011 went into an infrastructure fund to cover the externalized costs of extraction industries, such as damage to roads and bridges. This is required by law every year. 

The large bulk of the revenue, more than 86% in FY 2011, went into the general revenue fund with no spending strings attached. 

Finally 8.9% of the tax revenue was distributed to counties and municipalities. This happens in two ways. One formula directs a portion of the revenues to counties from which the resources are actually severed. There is a list of these counties for coal and one for oil & gas. For example, six counties (Marshall, Tyler, Harrison, Wetzel, Doddridge and Ritchie) principally benefitted from the formula for distributing oil & gas tax revenues.

But under a second formula all counties and municipalities benefit from direct distribution of severance tax revenues based on population. For example, in FY 2018 Martinsburg received $20,000 from oil & gas severance taxes, Charles Town received $5,000 and Shepherdstown $6,000.

Should We Increase the Severance Tax Rate on Oil & Gas?

There has been a lot of debate on this question recently. In the April 11, 2018 issue of the Spirit of Jefferson, former Delegate John Doyle argued that we should double the severance tax rate on oil & gas. Then in the Charleston Daily-Mail for April 14, 2018, the former President of the West Virginia Independent Oil & Gas Association (and current lobbyist) Philip Reale argued that we should be cautious in raising the tax and increasing production costs because oil & gas producers might choose to drill wells in other less costly states. In my opinion, Doyle gets the better of this argument.

First, as Doyle points out, if the state’s production of oil & gas continues to expand as predicted, doubling the severance tax could mean an additional $560 million in revenue for the state. That would be a huge shot in the arm for a state struggling to address daunting social and economic problems. The injection of that additional revenue into the state’s economy would also have a multiplier effect. A 2010 study from Penn State found that for every $100 million in severance tax revenue, Pennsylvania would see a net gain of 1,100 jobs from increased state spending in areas such as infrastructure and schools.

The beauty of the West Virginia severance tax is that, for the most part, West Virginians don’t pay it. The tax burden of a severance tax on oil & gas mainly falls out of state in increased consumer prices for gas and oil consumption. Furthermore, most of the companies involved in gas drilling and production upon which the tax would be levied are not West Virginia companies and their stockholders are spread world-wide. Think of the oil & gas severance tax like the hotel/motel tax that travelers to West Virginia pay on their hotel stay. They get the tax burden; we get the benefit.

But what about Reale’s point that raising production costs in West Virginia might discourage drilling activity here in favor of other states like Ohio and Pennsylvania? The empirical evidence does not support this concern. Severance and income taxes are only a small part of the overall cost of operating for an oil & gas company. Pennsylvania has no severance tax whatever, but still West Virginia gas & oil production set a new record in 2016, and our prime producing counties are a stone’s throw from the Pennsylvania border.

A 1999 study in Wyoming and a 2008 study in Utah both came to the conclusion that the severance tax rate had very slight effect on the level of industry activity. Different tax rates and structures between states seem to have little impact on amount of investment in each state.  In 2001 Montana reduced severance tax rates and while Wyoming increased rates. Both states had a boom, but Wyoming experienced better growth in production and revenue. Industry certainly did not flee Wyoming.

The West Virginia Future Fund

In my opinion, the only downside to increasing the oil & gas severance tax rate substantially is that it would make our budget even more exposed to the boom and bust cycle. As severance tax revenue becomes an ever larger proportion of our general revenue fund, the sudden loss of those revenues because of price volatility can wreck budgets. But we may already have a solution to this problem.

In 2014, the West Virginia Legislature exercised rare foresight when it established the West Virginia Future Fund. This is a sovereign wealth fund that is intended to capture and invest 3% of severance tax revenue that would otherwise go into the general revenue fund. The idea is to permit us to benefit over the long term from the interest in the invested funds. Several western states have taken the lead on this type of fund. Wyoming, a large coal producing state, created its Permanent Wyoming Mineral Trust Fund in 1974. As of 2015, the Fund had assets of $6.8 billion and had generated $4.7 billion in interest income for the state’s general revenue fund.

The Future Fund is different than our “rainy day” fund. We actually have two of these – one into which budget surpluses are deposited and the other into which the state’s tobacco litigation settlement payout was deposited. These rainy day funds have been used to make up budget shortfalls in the last two years.

The Future Fund is entirely empty at present because of restrictions on when severance tax revenues can be diverted to it. One restriction is that no deposit to the Future Fund can be made unless the rainy day fund is at least 13% of the state’s general revenue fund budget for the preceding year. Another is that no deposit can be made if the rainy day fund was called upon in the preceding year to make up a shortfall in the general revenue fund budget.

It is hard to quibble with these restrictions, but as anyone knows who is trying to save for retirement, putting money away for the future requires discipline. The Future Fund will never work as intended if the restrictions prevent a deposit most every year. If this continues, the restrictions will have to be revisited.

The interest from the Future Fund can, by law, only be spent on economic development and diversification projects, infrastructure improvements and “tax relief.” It cannot be used directly to smooth out the effects of the boom and bust cycle on the general revenue fund. However, once we begin drawing down interest from the Future Fund for these specified purposes, our tax dollars that would otherwise be spent on them can be freed up to deal with other spending needs — even during years when market conditions create a bust in severance tax revenue.

Increasing our oil & gas severance tax to take advantage of the current boom coupled with actual, sustained use of the Future Fund is smart business for West Virginia.   




The Rich Benefit Bigly From Trump’s Tax Reform

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) has added mightily to the already serious income and wealth inequality in America. Yet our state’s Republican representatives in Congress seem oblivious that most people in this state are poor relative to the rest of the country. They have boasted about what amounts to the crumbs on the table that middle and lower income West Virginians gain from this Act. For example, Rep. Alex Mooney, who represents much of the Panhandle in Congress, announced that he voted for “tax cuts for all West Virginians.” Always obsequious when it comes to the White House, Mooney said “President Donald Trump has been a true leader on delivering tax relief for all Americans and I am looking forward to continuing to work with him to create more jobs and to keep our economy growing.” There is no other way to put it — this emphasis on the illusory benefits enjoyed by the broad middle of our society is just willfully deceptive. The true winners under the TCJA are the rich, who will benefit at the expense of the rest of us.

Even the frequently touted tax reductions for lower and middle income taxpayers are not intended to be permanent. These will decline over the next eight years and ultimately expire. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito argued in the December 27, 2017, Spirit of Jefferson that the new law doubles the standard deduction to $24,000 for couples. But she failed to mention that this increase also expires in 2025. Furthermore, she didn’t even try to defend some of the law’s permanent features, which benefit the wealthy. These are the $1.5 trillion tax cuts for corporations, which will do nothing but increase the value of corporate stock in the hands of the wealthy, and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate. The repeal of the mandate will generate $53 billion in annual savings by 2027, paying for about one-third (about 4.7 percentage points) of the bill’s 14-percentage-point permanent cut in the corporate rate. But it will leave millions more uninsured and raise premium rates for many others.

Here are three additional key ways in which the TCJA benefits the rich at the expense of the rest of us:

Distributing Tax Cuts Disproportionately to the Rich. The Tax Policy Center, a joint effort by the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute, put it this way: “In general, higher income households receive larger average tax cuts as a percentage of after-tax income, with the largest cuts as a share of income going to taxpayers in the 95th to 99th percentiles of the income distribution.” This result will clearly play out in West Virginia.

Tax Benefits

Doubling the Estate Tax Exemption. The TCJA doubles the exemption from tax on estates valued from $11 million per couple to $22 million per couple. Doubling the exemption reduces the share of estates facing tax from 0.2 percent to 0.07 percent, leaving only 1,800 taxable estates nationwide. It is hard to understand why this tax change was so important — unless satisfying rich donors is considered. The estate tax rate is only 17%, far less than on ordinary income for this group of taxpayers. Still the tax exemption will be worth on average $4.4 million to those upper-end estates who will now be exempt. To put this in perspective, $4.4 million is about what it would cost to give 1,100 Pell grants to low income students.

Creating a Tax Break for “Pass-Through” Income. Although the corporate tax rate is reduced by 14 points, this benefit mainly applies to large corporations.  Many small corporations and limited liability entities account for business income by passing it through to the individual owner. Trust me on this, most of these business owners are not among the struggling taxpayers in this country. The corporate tax rate doesn’t apply to passed-through business income. Instead, the individual tax rate for that taxpayer would apply. It was not enough that the individual tax rates will be reduced, the TCJA also creates a special new tax benefit for pass-through business income. The final TCJA allows small business owners to deduct 20% of their passed-through business income.

I get it that current Republican ideology is interested in directing policy benefits to those in society they call the “makers,” while being far less concerned about everyone else whom they label the “takers.” The TCJA is a perfect example of how this works, even though Republican politicians continue to argue falsely that the beneficiaries of this law are the middle class. To some extent, the horse is out of the barn — this bad tax law passed warts and all. But we cannot let this go. At every opportunity in the run-up to the 2018 mid-term elections and then on to 2020, we need to keep this issue at the front of the debate.

Government by the Rich, for the Rich

The much maligned Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) is regarded by most Americans as a naked effort by the Republican Party to reward its key donors, among them the wealthiest of Americans. Public polling has consistently been negative for this “reform” legislation. The law’s modest temporary tax relief for the middle class is just window dressing. The public has simply disregarded this window dressing and correctly assessed the stink from what has been served up to them.

The TCJA is an enormously complex law, with poorly understood provisions the effect of which won’t be known until well after the law takes effect. Since the tax code has a profound effect on the behavior of individuals and businesses, and hasn’t been revised since 1986, a major revision should be thoroughly debated in the light of day. But to do that would have permitted the TCJA’s ugly flaws to be exposed and for opposition to solidify. So in adopting the TCJA Republicans jettisoned any pretense of democracy.

There were no public hearings. Some of the law’s provisions were added at the very last minute. The Congressional Budget Office had no time to evaluate the Republicans’ flimsy claim that increased business activity spurred by the tax cuts would raise substantial new tax revenues. The Bill was available for review roughly three days before the final Senate vote. The Democrats, who were not opposed to revisions to the corporate tax structure and might have made reasonable suggestions, were shut out of the process. This is how the Republicans govern.

One wonders why a massive tax cut was so important for Republicans in the first place, particularly in the face of negative public polling. The Trump Administration is riding the wave of economic recovery that began well before Trump took office. National unemployment is hovering around 4%, generally regarded as full employment. Corporations are already sitting on $2.3 trillion in cash reserves. They do not need massive tax cuts to free up cash for investment. The answer is that big donors are furious about not receiving the big tax cuts that were promised when the Republicans repealed Obamacare, which they failed to do.

Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman has argued in the New York Times:

A large part of the answer [for why a huge tax cut was so important] is that many Republicans now see themselves and/or their party in such dire straits that they’re no longer even trying to improve their future electoral position; instead, it’s all about grabbing as much for their big donors while they still can. Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose; in the GOP’s case, that means the freedom to be the party of, by, and for oligarchs they always wanted to be.

Krugman can be intemperate at times, but he seems to be on to something. At all the key forks in the policy road, the Republicans have rewarded themselves and their rich friends. The TCJA represents a huge redistribution of wealth from the poor and middle class to those in the upper income brackets who hardly need it.

By far the largest impact of the TCJA will be the reduction of corporate tax rates. These reductions will themselves be responsible for nearly $1.5 trillion in reduced tax revenues. The Republican argument is that corporations will use this new cash to increase business capital investment, hire new workers and raise wages. But there is nothing in the TCJA that requires a business to use the tax cuts in this way. Many businesses have said they will use the money for non-productive uses like increased dividends and share repurchases. These uses only serve to increase the value of the corporation’s stock in the hands of those who own it.

Who benefits when the value of corporate stock goes up? Only 52% of the American public owns any stock whatever, even in retirement accounts, and those owners surely won’t be found in the bottom half in wealth and income. President Trump is fond of bragging about how the stock market is breaking records. Can’t you just hear the Champagne corks popping in all the nation’s homeless shelters?

In my next post, I will detail how the rich will directly benefit from the TCJA at the expense of the rest of us. Certainly, this statute ought to be one of the first things on the agenda of any new Democratic majority in Congress to reverse. In fact, instead of just undoing this bad law, the TCRA may unleash the Democrats to make substantial changes to the tax code to benefit affirmatively those whom the Republicans have, for now, shut out.

Delegate Riley Moore and Business Tax Cuts

On October 19, 2017 Delegate Riley Moore, who represents the Shepherdstown District in the West Virginia House of Delegates, published an opinion piece in the Charleston Daily Mail. The piece urged Congress to pass the Trump “tax reform” bill for the sake of economic growth, particularly in West Virginia. Putting aside that Del. Moore could not have known the details of the Republican tax bill on October 19 because it had not yet been made public, he extolled the virtues of various tax cuts he expected the plan to contain. In particular, Del. Moore is fond of tax cuts for business. His logic is the following. The desirable end result is more economic activity and good jobs for everyone. So far, so good. The means of achieving that desirable end result is to give over a trillion taxpayer dollars to corporations — with no strings attached — and hope that they spend this money in productive ways. What could possibly go wrong with this plan?

Republicans have creative ideas from time to time, and Del. Moore is no exception. He sponsored a bill during the last legislative session that would have created tax credits to stimulate new businesses in West Virginia. But Republicans never want to pay for their creative ideas with new tax revenue. Instead they want to cut into already existing tax revenue that would be available for other useful government work. Tax credits are one way to do this. Tax credits are tax reductions for specific taxpayers who meet the requirements, yet they are still essentially transfers of our public money in exchange for certain taxpayer behavior. Is encouraging this behavior more desirable than some other use for the tax money? The problem is that when these tax credits are proposed it is impossible to identify precisely what government program will be eliminated in exchange, or will suffer for lack of funding. The proponent of the plan doesn’t have to make the case that the tax credit is better than an environmental program, more student loans, or some other worthy project. So the public cannot intelligently answer the question.

Indiscriminate business tax cuts are far worse. Under the Republican world-view, money is best diverted from public uses to private uses. The end result is that government has less and less ability to do what we need it to do. Make no mistake, every dollar that is cut from the taxes of a business is a dollar that we could otherwise use to fund our schools, our healthcare and our public safety. Indiscriminate business tax cuts don’t even pretend to require desirable behaviors from the business like tax credits do. Business tax cuts are just giveaways of our money plain and simple. Today the Wall Street Journal reported that the Trump tax plan in its present House version would permanently reduce the corporate tax rate to 20%, costing $1.5 trillion dollars in lost tax revenue.

Has anyone else noticed that Republicans only seem to be concerned about the deficit and the debt when it is “entitlement” spending programs that are under consideration? True tax reform would shift tax burdens around to be more equitable and streamline administrative procedures. But it would also find new revenues to make up for revenues lost – revenue neutrality. Trump’s tax plan as initially revealed by the House Republican leadership hardly makes an effort to claim revenue neutrality. Paul Ryan and others say that the enormous tax cuts will stimulate growth over the next decade and from this growth new tax revenues will come. No economist will stand up to support this trickle-down baloney. If the so-called “fiscal hawks” in the Republican Party don’t oppose this thinking, then we should all change the channel the next time they complain about spending programs from the Democrats.

Del. Moore’s opinion piece in The Daily Mail also spoke warmly of middle-class tax cuts and on this it is hard to disagree with him. Putting more money in the pockets of those who need a boost is exactly the kind of alternative use for tax revenues that does make sense. It will also boost the economy because middle-class taxpayers will be much more likely to spend their tax cut than the wealthy, who will save any tax cut they get.

But a business is entirely different than a middle-class taxpayer. Sure a business tax cut will free up some money for the business, but what’s to keep that money from being spent on a vacation in the tropics for the owner, or a non-productive use like paying down debt or share repurchases? Writing in the Washington Post, David Lynch notes

Several companies already have indicated that they will use excess funds to pay off debt, increase dividend payments or repurchase their own shares rather than create new jobs or raise wages. On Wall Street, the consensus is that workers will be the last in line behind shareholders, creditors and investment bankers when the extra corporate cash is distributed.

The Republican tax plan contains absolutely no requirement that a business use the tax cut for investments that will create jobs. If Del. Moore wants to have his house painted, you can be sure he doesn’t just send checks to all the painters in town in hopes that one will show up at his house.

If this country is going to give away its tax revenue to corporations for the goals of generating economic activity and creating jobs, there are ways to ensure that the money is employed to these purposes. One need look no further than the way the money from the recent West Virginia road bond referendum will be used. The goals were increased economic activity in the short term and more jobs for West Virginians. There is a linear connection between these goals and the means chosen to achieve them. Projects will begin in the current fiscal year all over the state. The West Virginia Jobs Act requires that contractors receiving these funds employ a workforce of at least 75% West Virginia residents and a proposed amendment introduced at the recent Extraordinary Session of the Legislature would put some teeth into this requirement. Of course, there can always be slips between the cup and lip. But this arrangement creates more confidence that our tax money will be used for the desired purpose than trillion dollar business tax cuts with no strings attached.

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.




Do Tax Cuts Lead to Economic Growth?

Budget season in Charleston and Washington, D.C. has once again presented the spectacle of competing tax philosophies. Conservatives argue for cutting taxes as a way to unleash economic growth and job creation. They assert that high taxes discourage the most creative class from economic activity that will ultimately raise all boats. Liberals and progressives, on the other hand, believe that tax cuts unfairly benefit the rich and eliminate revenues that are required for programs that secure a just society. They further argue that tax cuts do not stimulate economic growth in the long term and point out that some jurisdictions with the highest tax rates in the country and the world also have the highest rates of growth. Who is right?

There is one aspect of tax cuts that is not debatable – it is simple arithmetic. If a government cuts taxes it lowers revenues. Unless spending is cut by an equal amount, the government creates a budget deficit. Budget deficits at the federal level are funded by government borrowing. But the more the government borrows, the higher its debt service burden will be in the future. This has two major consequences.

First, the more money that must be devoted to paying off debt, the less money is available for direct spending on needed government activity. Second, government borrowing sucks up investment funds from the market that would otherwise be available to businesses for making capital investment – new plant, machinery and technology. New capital investment is required for productivity growth, and productivity growth is required for overall economic growth.

Conservatives dispute that tax cuts lower revenues by resort to a form of economic voodoo called “dynamic scoring.” They argue that because tax cuts will stimulate economic growth, which will lead to a healthier base economy upon which the lower tax rates will apply, it is incorrect to focus only on the immediate drop in tax revenues created by the proposed tax cuts. According to this argument, eventual new tax revenues created by future economic growth should be counted to assess the true impact of the tax cuts.

Very few economists are comfortable relying on dynamic scoring because there are no certainties about the effects of tax cuts on economic growth. Revenue feedback from increased growth fluctuates, when it occurs at all, and never gets above 20% of the original cuts. Nevertheless conservative politicians love dynamic scoring. It is a sales pitch they can use to undercut opposition and it does not require them to provide facts or credible explanations. For example, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin asserted on April 26 that the lower tax rates in President Trump’s tax plan will boost GDP growth from its current 1.7% rate to a new level of 3%, and that surge would completely pay for the plan. But in a poll of 37 economists conducted by the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, not one believed that the proposed tax cuts could pay for themselves.

The historic evidence is that tax cuts do not lead to long term economic growth. Recent history provides support for this. Both President George H. W. Bush and President Clinton raised taxes in the 1990s and the economy boomed. Incomes grew at the fastest rate since the 1960s. Then President George W. Bush passed a large tax cut in 2001 and boldly predicted that prosperity would follow. It didn’t. The economy stumbled at a low growth rate until it crashed in 2008. A similar example of this at the state level is provided by the Kansas experience, in which sweeping tax cuts were followed by sluggish growth. Of course, correlation is not necessarily causation – tax increases may not cause booms and tax cuts may not cause busts. Instead we are asking whether tax cuts lead to economic growth and there is just no evidence for this.

From what little we know of the proposed Trump tax plan, wealthier taxpayers will be certain to benefit from lower marginal rates on income and capital gains. The Congressional Research Service, a non-partisan service of the Library of Congress, analyzed the effect of reductions in the top marginal tax rates since 1945. In a September 2012 report the CRS said:

There is not conclusive evidence, however, to substantiate a clear relationship between the 65-year steady reduction in top tax rates and economic growth. Analysis of such data suggests the reduction in the top tax rates have had little association with saving, investment, or productivity growth.

The CRS did find, however, that decreasing the top marginal tax rates was associated with increasing the share of national income going to those who were already wealthy.

So on the question of whether tax cuts lead to economic growth the careful answer, based on the evidence, is no. This begs the question what policies do increase economic growth, which will be the subject of a future article.

Replacing West Virginia’s Income Tax with a Consumption Tax Promises Huge New Deficits for the Future

West Virginia Senate Bill 335, now pending before the Senate Select Committee on Tax Reform, would phase out West Virginia’s income tax and impose an 8% consumption tax on a broad range of transactions. The legislative “findings” that precede SB 335 assert that a major change like this to our tax structure would be both fair and fiscally sound. As to fairness, this assertion is demonstrably false. SB 355 would increase the tax burden on low income and working class taxpayers and give wealthier taxpayers a substantial overall tax break.

In the face of at least a $500 million budget deficit this fiscal year and perhaps a larger one next fiscal year, West Virginia is in dire need of a tax plan that will grow long-term, stable revenues. Unfortunately, SB 335 would at best provide only temporary revenue relief and portends mounting future budget deficits. This revolutionary change to our tax structure would be bad law and worse policy.

It is important to understand how SB 335 would change West Virginia’s tax structure. The personal income tax is the state’s largest revenue source and makes up approximately 45% of the state’s General Revenue Fund Budget. Income tax collections for FY 2018 are expected to be $1.8 billion. Under SB 335, the personal income tax would be repealed on January 1, 2018 and replaced with a flat tax rate of .6% in 2018, .4% in 2019 and .2% in 2020. According to the fiscal note attached to the Bill, this would result in decreased income tax collections of $650 million in FY2018, $1.8 billion in FY2019 and $2.0 billion in 2020.

To replace that revenue, SB 335 would create a broadly based 8% consumption tax that would apply to the same sales as the current sales tax, but with the following enhancements: (1) food for home consumption, (2) non-medical professional services such as legal, accounting, engineering, architecture, real estate, advertising, funeral, and the like, (3) personal services such as hair, nails, skin care and non-medical personal home care, (4) public utility services such as electricity, natural gas, water, sewer, telecommunications, solid waste, and the like, and (4) numerous direct use purchases by business, electronic data processing, mobile home sales, health fitness services, and much more.

These consumption tax changes would result in tax collections to the General Revenue Fund of around $1.2 billion in FY2018 to $1.33 billion in FY2019. The figures do not account for “leakage” of sales by consumers who would make purchases in surrounding states with a lower consumption tax. Matching the projected decrease in income tax collections with the increase in projected consumption tax collections, the fiscal impact of SB 335 would be the following:

  • FY2018 — $550 million
  • FY2019 — ($370 million)
  • FY2020 — ($440 million)
  • FY2021 — ($610 million)

The increased revenues in FY2018 are produced only because the consumption tax increases would begin in July 2017 while the decreased income tax collections would not begin until January 1, 2018.

The fiscal note by the State Tax Department makes the following observation:

The proposed bill represents the most massive tax reform effort of any State in recent memory. Most states commit significant resources toward adequate measurement of tax reform impact on businesses and residents prior to adoption of a significant change. The resources and timeframe for the preparation of this fiscal note are woefully inadequate to properly measure the cumulative extent of all consequences associated with proposed changes.

Why then rush to consider SB 335? One argument for this change in the tax structure is that it would stimulate economic growth. But eliminating the state’s income tax can’t be counted upon to do this. The fiscal note states that SB 335 would effectively increase taxes on business inputs by an amount that is at least double the potential income tax savings on business profits. Meanwhile, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy notes that for the period 2005 to 2015 the nine states with the highest income tax had 5.6% GDP growth while the nine states with no income tax grew GDP only 3.2%.

Ask any merchant whether she would prefer to pay income tax on business income or be the state’s collection agent for a hefty consumption tax on her customers. My bet is that the income tax would be favored overwhelmingly. A consumption tax relentlessly faces the customer in each transaction and so discourages sales. This would be particularly true for businesses that deal in products and services that have never before been subject to the state’s sales tax. On the other hand, a business can plan for and sometimes mitigate the effects of an income tax through lawful deductions, credits and deferrals. Not so with a consumption tax.

If the West Virginia legislature truly wants to create stable future revenues for all the important work government has to do, while keeping West Virginia “open for business” as our state marketing slogan once promised, it needs sober up about what replacing the income tax with a consumption tax would really do.