It’s Time to Put the People of West Virginia First

Over the course of the last couple of weeks, the Legislature has been working in Charleston on our state’s budget, and we’ve been talking a lot about tax reform. These are things I’ve talked about throughout the session, but I think as of late, it’s become a little difficult to follow.

There’s been a lot of misinformation out there, and I’ve heard from some people in the First District as well as from House of Delegates members from across the state about the desire for the Legislature to pass a balanced budget with no tax increases. With that in mind, I wanted to map out a timeline — from the beginning of the regular 60-day session — that outlines the actions of both the House and the Senate, and the actions taken by the governor’s office.

On Feb. 8, the governor gave his State of the State address. Much to our surprise — and in a departure from what he had announced prior to the start of the session — we saw the governor propose a $450 million tax increase. That was not tax reform in any way, but just a plain tax increase that included things like a B&O tax and taxes on professional services.

Naturally, this concerned the conservatives in legislative leadership. At the time, it was the largest tax increase ever proposed in our state’s history. As readers here are well aware, I was very critical of that plan. Without any meaningful efforts to reform West Virginia’s out-of-date tax structure and to couple those efforts with a hard look at government spending, it was nothing more than asking the people to keep paying for a government that refused to live within its means.

A few weeks later, on Feb. 27, the governor came back with a second proposal that lowered the amount of tax increases to $400 million. He had reduced some of the taxes he’d asked for in his first proposal, but added a cigarette tax and a tax on sugary drinks, among others. He did this, again, without any conversation about tax reform, which made it an option that wasn’t viable to me and many of my fellow legislators. It was simply asking for more money from hardworking men and women of this state, and it was not something I believed they could afford.

Just a couple of weeks later, on March 13, House and Senate leadership stood together at a press conference to announce our joint intent of passing a budget that would not increase taxes and only would spend the revenue the state would actually collect — $4.055 billion. On April 5, after days of (often contentious) debate and making some incredibly difficult choices that amounted to $175 million in cuts to state government, the Senate passed from its chamber a balanced budget with no tax increases. It was extremely challenging, but we followed through on our word.

Also, while the Senate was working on its budget, the Committee on Tax Reform had been working on groundbreaking legislation that would give a significant income tax cut to all working men and women in West Virginia. While it raised some taxes to make up for the initial difference to our budget, the result was a net $120 million tax cut for the people of West Virginia. It also enabled us to restore some of the cuts to the budget we would pass, which was good news for the people who depend on many of the programs and services that would have been forced to take a hit from a balanced budget.

Those bills went over to the House of Delegates with plenty of time to work through the committee process and have their fair hearing on the floor for a vote. Neither saw the light of day. However, in those days, there was enough momentum to break from House leadership to discharge the bill relating to medical marijuana to the floor for a vote. So, no action on a balanced budget with no tax increases, but the medical marijuana bill passed.

On April 8, the Senate again passed a budget that had fewer cuts than before and balanced the rest using money from the Rainy Day Fund. The House did the same, and the Legislature adjourned. The governor shortly thereafter (and in rather memorable fashion) vetoed the budget. Back to square one.

Throughout the next month, during several meetings with House and Senate leadership, the governor came to the agreement with the Senate’s position on its tax reform plan. When the governor called the Legislature back in on May 4, the Senate passed our tax reform plan by a near-unanimous vote of 32-1. However, instead of allowing the bill to work through committees where it could be heard and amended, the House instead chose to reject the bill on first reading — twice. They rejected both the House version and the amended, improved Senate version. They did so with no plan, and no clear vision for where we would go next. Instead, we were forced to adjourn for 10 days.

This brings us to where we sit currently, which is working through the version of tax reform the House passed this week, and trying to make it work with our vision of tax reform. We fully believe the Senate’s plan will revolutionize our state’s economy and it will bring tremendous benefits to every hardworking West Virginian. My sincere hope is that the House will consider this plan, and put the people of West Virginia first.

Ferns is majority leader of the West Virginia State Senate. He represents the First Senate District. A licensed physical therapist, he is owner of The Ryan Ferns Healthplex Inc. in Benwood.

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