West Virginia Legislative Session Starts Shrouded in Secrecy & Bad Ideas

The West Virginia Legislature got underway on Wednesday, February 10th, and so far the legislative session has been marked by a lack of accountability and transparency, advancing legislation aimed at crippling public education, reducing workers’ rights, and securing large,  regressive tax cuts that will hurt working families.

When the legislature briefly convened on January 10th to elect officers and adopt rules, they decided to largely shut the public out of the process by denying them of the ability to testify at public hearings except when the bill is slated for passage. While this rule change was done under the guise of dealing with the pandemic, it was likely meant to ensure that the new GOP supermajority can pass controversial legislation swiftly and without public comment or review. While the state capitol is largely closed to the public during the legislative session because of pandemic-related concerns, testimony in committee meetings and meetings with legislators is done by invitation only. This has surfaced concerns that corporate lobbyists will have the most access to legislators by taking them out to dinner after hours. In late January, more than 40 organizations sent an open letter petition to legislative leaders asking them to commit to an open legislative session. So far, leadership has done little to address the group’s concerns.

The state budget is also clouded in a lack of transparency. When Governor Justice released his state budget last week, it did not contain the “six-year financial plan” or budget forecast that shows the state’s projected spending and revenues over the next four years. This may sound like a wonky fiscal policy instrument, but the six-year plan is crucial to understanding the fiscal health of the state and determining whether there will be a structural deficit in the future when spending outpaces revenue collections.

In last year’s budget, the six-year plan showed budget gaps of over $158 million per year over the next four years, including a $170 million gap in next year’s budget (FY22). Importantly, these projections were made before thousands of West Virginians lost their jobs during the COVID-induced economic downturn. It was reported last week that some public colleges did not receive scholarship funds (PROMISE) from the state last year and were told to not talk about it “until after the election,” despite the state’s $132 million surplus in FY2020.  The Governor has also been sitting on over $661 million in unappropriated federal relief funding (CARES Act), despite the urgent need to help families and communities suffering with hunger and job loss.

In the Governor’s State of the State address, he proposed eliminating the income tax, which comprises about 41% of the state’s general revenue fund budget of $4.6 billion and is one of the few taxes in the state that is based on the ability to pay. While Gov. Justice did propose raising some taxes, it appears that none of the proposals could yield anything close to the $2 billion in income taxes that the state is expected to collect next year. The Governor also proposed a “flat budget” and uses one-time budget maneuvers of over $300 million, including the use of Medicaid reserves, to balance the state’s $5 billion base budget.

On top of eliminating the income tax, legislators have also taken swift action to cut public education and reroute funds to private schools in the form of Education Savings Accounts and by increasing the number of charter schools in the state. The House passed the “Hope Scholarship” (HB 2013), also known as the ESA bill, last week, but rescinded the bill because the fiscal note determined that it could divert an estimated $112.3 million per year from public education to private schools and parents in the form of vouchers to be used on education expenses. The Senate passed a bill that would ensure that school workers are not paid if they illegally strike and that school boards cannot close if there is a school worker strike.

The Senate also passed sweeping legislation (SB 272) to make it easier for employers to classify workers as independent contractors, what is often called a “take it or leave it contract.” If enacted, it would ensure more workers don’t have access to health and pension benefits, health and safety protections, and make it impossible for workers to unionize since they would be independent contractors. A similar bill also passed out of the House Judiciary Committee.

In regard to energy and environmental policy, the senate has introduced legislation (SB 32) to reduce property taxes paid by the oil and gas industry by over $50 million per year, as we discussed last year. Another priority for the legislature and governor is to eliminate the business personal property tax on machinery and equipment, which would be another large tax cut for the capital-intensive fossil fuel industry.

On top of these tax cut proposals, the legislature will also be rewriting their water quality standard rules (SB 137) that could weaken restrictions on over 13 toxins in West Virginia’s water supply. On a positive note, the legislature has introduced bills to encourage solar energy production on abandoned mine sites (HB 2287), make solar purchase power agreements legal (HB 2249), allow third-party ownership of renewable and alternative energy generating (SB 17), and a bill (HB 2102) to require notices of air quality permits prior to the permit being granted (also known as the Rockwool bill).

On the democracy and election front, the Senate introduced two bills to require more disclosure of election expenditures (SB 17) and PAC names and addresses (SB 49). The House introduced two bills, one making it harder to vote, and the other making it easier. HB 2607 would require everyone to have a picture identification in order to vote, while the other bill (HB 2625) would allow for same day voter registration.

As the 60-day legislative session moves forward in West Virginia, stay tuned for more in-depth review of policy proposals, especially as they relate to energy policy and fair democracy. In the meantime, be sure to subscribe to the weekly newsletters of some of the organizations on the ground working on these issues, including WV Environmental Council, WV Rivers Coalition, WV Center on Budget and Policy, and WV Citizen Action Group.