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Government

With Supermajorities At The Statehouse, W.Va. GOP Will Focus On Pandemic, Tax Repeals, Governor’s Emergency Powers

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Will Price
/
West Virginia Legislative Photography
Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, stands in front of the chamber on Wednesday, Jan. 13 2021 during an organizational session of the West Virginia Legislature.

In just two weeks, the West Virginia Legislature will convene to kick off its 60-day regular session. While the coronavirus pandemic leaves many unknowns on how the session will run without interruption, Republicans — who now hold supermajorities in the House and Senate — are eager to fulfill what they see as a mandate from voters in the state.

Those leading the Republican majorities are already beginning to outline issues that are likely to come up during the session, while Democrats hope to still play a part in shaping policy without much sway in the statehouse.

Following the 2020 election, Republicans took 77 of 100 seats in the House of Delegates and 23 of 34 seats in the Senate. Such numbers effectively give the GOP free reign to set the tone for the session.

House Majority Leader Amy Summers, R-Taylor, said the coronavirus will be at the forefront of their agenda in this upcoming session.

“It's been a really difficult year with the pandemic. And as in any crisis, it kind of brings to the surface areas that [the Legislature needs to] address,” Summers said.

Summers points to the expansion of telemedicine through an executive order from Republican Gov. Jim Justice as one thing the House majority is looking to solidify into code. She says they’re hoping to look at spending by local health departments — noting that in recent years those budgets were cut, but other funding mechanisms were put in place.

“We allowed them to bill for services, and they had not done that before,” she said. “So we need to review: Has that ability to bill been able to supplement their income enough or not? And maybe in certain areas that has — and other areas that hasn't.”

Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, has also pointed to the pandemic as influencing the upper chamber’s agenda. He said he’s focused on building out the state’s broadband infrastructure.

“COVID has demonstrated that we need to be able to make it so that our students can be educated from home,” Blair said. “We've got people that are wanting to move to the state of West Virginia. But if they're going to work from home, then they’re going to need to have access to high-speed broadband.”

In recent weeks, Blair and Justice have both said they want to eliminate the state personal income tax. According to reports from the West Virginia Department of Revenue, that tax brought in just under $2 billion during Fiscal Year 2020 — accounting for more than 40 percent of that year’s $4.7 billion budget.

While Blair has publicly touted the proposed repeal, he said it’s still in the works. He said the Senate is working with the House and the governor’s office to get data on the issue. But he is clear with one promise, should it move forward.

“There will not be any tax increases to be able to do that,” Blair said. “So when I say tax increases, [I mean] that your overall net of tax — for the people living in the state of West Virginia — will be the same, or reduced.”

Democrats, though, say they’re worried about finding a way to replace that much revenue in the state’s annual budget. House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, said his party will be making efforts to outline the effects of such a proposal.

“The reality is, you can't just take away one tax without supplementing it somewhere else,” Skaff said. “And the last thing we want to do is just shift the tax liability — from one person to the other.”

Skaff said completely eliminating taxes like the personal income tax is an unrealistic endeavor — especially without an option to replace the revenue. In the end, though, he acknowledges that Democrats will have little to no ability to block the Republican majority from passing anything they want.

“They really can do whatever the heck they want to do,” said Skaff, noting the wide gap between the majority and his minority caucus. “But we are going to make sure that the people know and hold the Republicans accountable for their actions.”

Skaff said he and others in his caucus will interrogate the practical effect of legislation brought forth by the GOP.

“‘Who does it hurt?’ That's going to be our question,” Skaff asked. “‘Who does it hurt — with the ramifications of any bill that they pass?’”

While the two parties are sure to disagree at various points on a number of proposals, there appears to be bipartisan support to address one big issue that’s lingered in the minds of lawmakers since last session.

Skaff said the governor holding unilateral power to spend federal pandemic relief dollars is “unacceptable” — given the fact that a state of emergency has remained in place for more than 10 months.

“There's obviously a time and place where you need emergency powers,” Skaff said. “But when an emergency turns into an ongoing saga, a situation — then you, the legislature, should be called back in to deal with it.”

And even though Justice has received wide praise for his handling of the pandemic — leading Republicans, like Blair, agree that an evaluation of the governor’s emergency powers is in order.

Nobody ever anticipated that,” Blair said. “So this is a bellwether moment, where we have to go back and look at — again — what went right, what went wrong and how we can be prepared into the future.”

The legislature will convene at noon on Wednesday, Feb. 10. Traditionally, each party officially announces their respective agendas at the opening of the session.


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