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THE BACK PEW–Jan 18, 2023

By Stephen Baldwin, RealWV

January 18, 2023

Last week, I predicted a series of bills would pass on day one in the Senate. Some of you wrote to say, “Really? Wouldn’t that be very unusual?” 

Yes and yes. It really happened, and it is very unusual. Senate Republicans did this for a few reasons. Because they like to move quickly. Because they wanted to fire a shot across the bow with the governor and House, flexing their muscle. And because they can. 

With supermajorities, they can change any rule they want, anytime they want. One thing I learned in Charleston is that the rules are written to allow those in power to do whatever they want to do. With battles looming and tempers flaring, I suspect we’ve only seen the beginning of these tactical maneuvers. 

INCOME TAX CUT? This is the biggest battle looming. Governor Justice proposed a 50% income tax cut over three years. The House supports it. The Senate opposes it. Why the opposition? Three reasons. The Senate will oppose most any effort from the governor right now, due to bad blood over the defeat of Amendment 2. The Senate prefers to do a mix of tax cuts–income tax, personal property, machinery, equipment, inventory–rather than spend the surplus on a huge income tax reduction. The House passed the income tax cut today. When it goes to the Senate, expect to see major changes. 

UNEMPLOYMENT BILL. The worst bill of the 2022 legislative session reared its ugly head yesterday. SB59 and SB82 were combined into a single bill, slashing unemployment benefits. You may think that’s a good idea, since we need workers across West Virginia. But here’s the inconvenient truth–everyone who works in seasonal industries and takes low earnings (construction, tourism, hospitality, outdoor recreation) will be forced out. They wouldn’t be allowed to stay on low earnings for more than 12 weeks most times. At The Greenbrier Resort alone, 500-700 employees would be impacted. This bill would wreck our local economy. Will our legislators vote to protect their local economy or vote for political red meat? 

CAMPUS CARRY. Speaking of red meat, campus carry is back. Second Amendment advocates love it. Most higher education staff/students loathe it. Currently, any college or university may choose to allow or restrict firearms on campus. The decision is made locally. The “campus carry” bill requires that firearms be allowed on campuses. The current bill, SB10, contains paramteres about where and when firearms would be restricted. For example, no one could carry a pistol into a WVU football game. University leaders will find themselves in a tug of war between legislative leadership and their campus communities. Publicly, they say they oppose the bill. Privately, the word around the capitol is that they’ve agreed not to it so long as basic restrictions are in place. I suspect the negotiations will revolve around what type of restrictions to include, but the bill will pass due to the makeup of the legislature. 

DHHR. Last week, the Senate passed a bill breaking up DHHR into three agencies. This week, the House Health Committee passed the same concept in their own bill. This signals that it’s a done deal among legislators. Even if the governor vetoes it (he opposed the concept in the past) once it inevitably passes, the legislature has the votes and time to override his veto. Everyone agrees the status quo isn’t working. But will creating new agencies with new cabinet secretaries and new salaries really solve the problem? Some Republican legislators think their party is straying by supporting bigger government. Others wonder if this proposed solution will do anything to actually help those who need it, like foster children. In my experience, Charleston never met a band-aid it didn’t love. 

“FLAT BUDGET.” The last big band-aid was the “flat budget.” Introduced by Senate Republicans several years ago and embraced by the governor (back when they got along), the idea is to keep the base budget the same from year to year. For example, if the budget in 2022 was $4 billion then it should also be $4 billion in 2023. Why? It’s an easy way to curb government spending. Politicians get to say they are “right-sizing government” and making government “live within its means” without ever actually making any hard decisions. Instead, they just bleed the agencies dry and force their directors to make cuts. In addition, it makes it look like you’re having revenue growth when you’re actually just trying to keep up with rising costs. And the result is that services flounder, because year after year agencies like Education, DHHR, Highways, DEP, and Conservation fall further and further behind. Keep the “flat budget” in mind, as it will continue to be discussed alongside tax cuts, the budget, and surplus spending. 

SENSATIONAL BILLS. Last but not least, let me provide my annual warning about sensational bills. Thousands of bills are introduced every year. Folks comb through the list, find the craziest ones, and then go bananas about them. I do it too! But please hear me: There will be insane bills each and every year. Voters should consider those introduced by their own local legislators when they vote. But this time of year, we need to focus on those bills which make an agenda. Because those are the bills that could actually become law. 

Stay tuned to The Real WV for the latest. We will do our best to provide you real news via the articles and real insight via the editorials. 

That is the view from the back pew. May God bless you.

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