The Old Bait And Switch

West Virginia voters have just been made the victims of a fraud — we were sold one thing by Jim Justice and he has now delivered another. It did not take him long to reveal the fraud, suggesting that it was intended from the beginning.  In Huntington with Donald Trump on August 3, 2017, Justice announced that he was switching parties from Democrat to Republican. Recall that this is a man who switched party affiliations from Republican to Democrat in February 2015 so he could run for Governor on the Democrat ticket. He was elected in November 2016, a mere nine months before switching back to Republican again. In front of a cheering crowd who had booed him just moments before, Justice explained that “I just can’t help you anymore being a Democrat governor.” This bait and switch had far less to do with Justice’s desire to be an effective governor than with his lack of character.

It’s easy to dispose of Justice’s claim that being a Democrat governor limited his effectiveness during the recent budget fiasco. When his proposed budgets were first introduced to the Legislature they involved generating new revenues and preserving the spending necessary to retain the state’s social fabric. He got wide support for this from the Democrats but little support from the Republicans. As the debate wore on, however, Justice abandoned the progressive aspects of his budget and began caucusing with the far-right Senate Republicans in their effort to cut income taxes.

These income tax cuts were not only opposed by Democrats, but also by House Republicans. Since Republicans control the House of Delegates, it was Justice’s inability to deal with them that ultimately frustrated him. But actually being a registered Republican would not have improved his effectiveness.  He had already taken up with the right fringe in the Senate and begun to act like a Republican. Instead it was his poor policy choices, frequent course reversals and shallowness that caused his ineffectiveness. He has poor political instincts and is simply not a leader.

There is no question, however, that Justice’s switch of party affiliation has damaged the already lame Democrat party. That party has been able to elect only one Democrat out of five Congressional representatives and now all in the state’s elected leadership are Republican. Sen. Joe Manchin, who is reputed to have recruited Justice to switch parties to Democrat and run for governor, looks like a fool. So does current State Democrat Party Chair Belinda Biafore, who claims that Justice duped her, not to mention former Democrat Party Chair Nick Casey, who is Justice’s Chief of Staff. Calls for a shake-up of Democrat party leadership have already begun. Former West Virginia Senate President Jeff Kessler, a respected Democrat who lost to Justice in the 2016 primary, said “It’s time for a change at the top . . . They need some new leadership at the Democrat chair.”

Nobody looks good in this. The Republicans have their own problems welcoming back to their party a governor they were happy to lampoon just days ago. The Republican Governor’s Association said in November 2015 that Justice was “a selfish businessman who consistently put his interests before anyone else’s, especially taxpayers.” The West Virginia Republican Party said in July 2017 that “Jim Justice embarrasses our state every single day.” These statements were catalogued by the Democratic Governor’s Association, who are now firing their own invective at Justice when formerly they embraced him. The hypocrisy on both sides of this sad event makes you want to take a shower.

Not all politicians lack character.  One thinks immediately of Sen. John McCain on the Republican side and former President Obama on the Democrat side. But if character is the trait of steadfastness to principle when the going gets tough, Jim Justice has failed us miserably. It is hard even to see what he hopes to gain from this switch of party affiliations. Perhaps he expects larger campaign contributions from Republicans than he raked in from the Democrats whom he deceived in 2016. Maybe he wants to bask in the Mar-A-Lago sun. One thing is certain, though. The question of what he has to gain is the right question to ask.

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 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.

 

 

 

Del. Michael Folk: No Friend of Education

Del. Michael Folk (R – Berkeley, 63) professes to be interested in promoting quality education in West Virginia, but he has an odd way of showing it. In February 2016, Del. Folk was the lead sponsor of two bills that would have abolished key components of the education system in West Virginia. One of these, HB 4611, would have abolished the West Virginia Council for Community and Technical College Education.

HB 4611 would not have abolished the colleges themselves, but instead would have transferred to each of them the power and duties of the Council. Perhaps Del. Folk believed that this would eliminate an unnecessary level of bureaucracy and cost. But that appears to be incorrect.

The non-partisan fiscal notes attached to the Bill state the problem with this potential legislation:

The enactment of this legislation would have a substantial negative financial impact on the State, institutions and students served by public higher education. The Council is a critical and necessary partner in [sic] with the West Virginia Department of Commerce and others in the process to support existing businesses and attract businesses such as Proctor and Gamble and Macy’s to West Virginia. Corporations will not locate to the State without significant workforce investment commitments from a State agency that serves as the coordinating entity for Community and Technical Colleges. This coordination cannot occur at the local level.

There would be other financial consequences as well. The Council receives federal and state grants of over $2.8 million that would not be received directly by institutions. The Council also provides facilities management services to each college. The fiscal notes estimate that if each college were forced to hire its own director of facilities management the net additional cost would be $1,134,000.

Inadequate education is holding back our economy. In 2015, the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy published its eighth annual report on the state’s economy. The report focused on West Virginia’s labor force participation rate (LFPR), the lowest in the nation — where it has ranked since 1976. Using a regression analysis, the Center isolated several factors that are drivers of the low rate. One of the most important was inadequate education.

West Virginia’s educational attainment rate is also one of the lowest in the nation. Only 21% of the state’s prime working-age population (25-54) has a four-year college degree, compared to the national average of 31%. In this same age category, 42% have only a high school education, the highest rate in the country. But when the LFPR statistics are parsed, it is clear how critical education is. Those West Virginians with a college degree have a higher LFPR than the national average, ranking the state 14th highest.

More working West Virginians mean a more prosperous economy, more secure and stable families, and much more. A more educated West Virginia means more of our fellow citizens will be working. Against this backdrop, Del. Folk’s attempt to abolish the West Virginia Council for Community and Technical College Education was reckless and irresponsible. Let’s hope he does not repeat the attempt during the new legislative session.