West Virginia Gas, Sales Tax Bills Advancing

CHARLESTON (AP) — West Virginia’s Senate has voted to raise the state’s gas tax by 4.5 cents a gallon while the House narrowly advanced a 1 percent cut in the state sales tax that would also eliminate certain exemptions.

The Senate’s 27-6 Saturday vote backs one of Gov. Jim Justice’s proposals to raise the basic state excise tax on gasoline from 20.5 cents per gallon to 25 cents on July 1. The bill now goes to the House. The West Virginia gasoline tax also has an additional variable rate component currently set at 11.7 cents a gallon.

The House of Delegates’ 50-44 vote Saturday allowed a bill to advance that would cut the state’s consumer sales tax from 6 percent to 5 percent. It would also eliminate the current exemption for gym memberships and food while setting the tax on groceries at 3 percent. The House was scheduled to consider possible amendments Monday.

According to House leaders, those tax changes, on top of $300 million of their proposed spending cuts and adjustments to Gov. Jim Justice’s earlier budget proposals, would close the state deficit next year.

Separately, the Senate is considering a broader tax overhaul that would raise the state sales and use tax to 7 percent, applying it more broadly to services including trash hauling, funerals, cosmetology, barbering, telecommunications and non-medical personal services.

The proposed overhaul would cut the graduated state income tax with the top rate dropping from 6.5 to 5 percent. It would also revise coal severance taxes, reducing them for narrower coal seams. The bill is pending in the Senate Finance Committee.

Income taxes would further decline by 0.1 percent for every $50 million annual increase in collections from the revised sales and use tax above $1.8 billion.

Both chambers will have to reconcile and approve their respective tax bills before the session ends in two weeks to make any of them effective. They’re also subject to signing or veto by the governor.

Justice has supported calls to eventually eliminate the state income tax but said it’s too soon this year. He has proposed an increase in the sales tax and a corporate revenue tax, both less than 1 percent, to close the deficit and using the gas tax to support bonding for a major road reconstruction program.

The Senate also voted Monday to raise the campaign contribution limit from $1,000 to $2,700 to a candidate in a primary or general election and revise other provisions in state election law.

The bill approved 21-11 now goes to the House for consideration.

Sen. Corey Palumbo, a Charleston Democrat, said the changes will increase the influence of the wealthy on West Virginia politics and reduce the influence of common citizens. The proposed changes would effectively raise the individual donation limit in a state candidate’s campaign cycle to $5,400, he said.

“The phrase of the session should be: It’s great to be rich,” Palumbo said. “Because once again we’re going to cater to those with money to provide them with more influence on elections. We’re going to do it when not on the other hand increasing disclosures.”

“I think this is going to be bad for the vast majority of our constituents who don’t have $2,700 to provide to candidates,” Palumbo added. “They don’t have $5,400 to provide over the course of the primary and the general.”

Sen. Mike Romano, another member of the chamber’s Democratic minority, said they could put elections back in the hands of regular people by limiting all contributions to $100. “Then it won’t be how rich your friends are but how many friends and supporters you have.”

What’s really needed and missing from the bill is disclosure of dark money, public reporting of people contributing to the independent expenditure groups that promote or attack candidates, Romano said.

Sen. Robert Karnes, an Upshur County Republican, says it should actually reduce the influence of so-called “dark money” from independent expenditure groups by letting West Virginians donate more money that’s publicly reported. “What you’re going to see with the $2,700 limit is less money going to those PACs,” he said.

It takes $75,000 to $300,000 to run a state Senate campaign in West Virginia, Karnes said. “And there’s nobody in this room that raised more than a few thousand dollars with contributions of 50 bucks or 100 bucks.”

Sen. Charles Trump, Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee that advanced the bill, said it rewrites many provisions of the state campaign finance code, raising contribution limits for the first time in more than a generation. It also broadens the issue of political action committees and requires accounting for receipts and expenditures, he said.

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