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Hoping for a Return to More Normal Times

My Super Bowl has finally arrived, and no, I’m not talking about football. The 2021 legislative session starts Wednesday and I’m simply excited to have 60 days of writing about things other than COVID-19.

Little did I know that, by the end of last year’s legislative session in March, I’d spend nearly 12 months and almost every other day writing about the coronavirus, my nose in spreadsheets and data, more or less becoming an armchair epidemiologist.

Others have had it far worse, dealing with the ongoing effects from COVID infections or mourning the death of a loved one. I’ve personally lost several friends during this crisis. The one consolation I’ve had is the infection numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths are starting to decrease in West Virginia.

We lead the nation in vaccinations, especially for our older West Virginians. Younger adults survive and even show no symptoms. Children are not very good spreaders and tend to show no effects when infected. My fingers are crossed that some semblance of normal can return by late spring and early summer.

I think that’s why I’m particularly looking forward to covering the legislative session this year. It was the last time things were normal for me. The state and nation didn’t turn upside down until a week after last year’s session ended March 7, 2020. COVID will remain important, and it will change how the session is done this year, but lawmakers will have to tackle other issues. The session, for me, is a welcome example that life must go on.

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COVID obviously changed the annual West Virginia Press Association Legislative Lookahead, which was done virtually over Zoom last week. The event gives members of the media a preview of where lawmakers’ heads are at and what legislation could be presented.

The problem with the Lookahead, and this is no one’s fault, is that lawmakers get to say a lot while saying nothing at all. Republican and Democratic leaders in the West Virginia Senate and House of Delegates gave out a lot of ideas for legislation but few specifics.

Understandably, lawmakers want to keep their cards close to their chest in order to keep members of the opposite party and even the few unruly members of their own parties from mounting opposition to their bills. Speaking as a former state Senate staffer, the bill-making process has never been very transparent during the best of times, so don’t expect things to change with tighter COVID restrictions.

All eyes will be on what Republicans do on taxes. Justice and Republican lawmakers have not made it much of a secret that phasing out the personal income tax will be on the table. During the last fiscal year, the personal income tax brought in more than $1.9 billion and accounted for 43 percent of tax revenue for the General Revenue Fund.

Opponents of phasing out the personal income tax seem to think lawmakers don’t understand that some of that revenue will need to be replaced through other means. I say some because the idea that some government departments and agencies don’t need cut is just silly. There are always redundancies, waste, and even fraud. The question is whether there are enough savings to be found.

Also, what taxes will be increased? What about removing tax loopholes and exemptions? The economists that are not hacks usually call for lowering the tax rates and broadening the base. In English, a low tax rate with few exemptions brings in the most revenue and fairly taxes a larger group of people.

It also makes sense to look at the personal income tax considering that people are leaving California in droves according to exitcalifornia.org. The escapees are heading for states like Texas, Nevada, and Washington — states with no personal income tax. I’m sure that’s not the only reason those states are becoming destinations, but it certainly can’t hurt.

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When my friend Brad McElhinny at WV MetroNews stumbled on former senate president Mitch Carmichael’s listing in the state employee online phone directory as executive director of the West Virginia Development Office, I certainly hope that the person who still held that title at the time, Michael Graney, was in on it. I certainly hope he didn’t find out he was being replaced the same time the rest of us found out last Wednesday.

I’m told that Carmichael’s move to the WVDO has been in the works for a couple of months. He lost his Republican primary last June and had been a lame duck lawmaker ever since. But it was still unclear whether Graney was in the know. Either way, it was announced last Thursday that Graney will now be the deputy director — number two — at the Department of Commerce with Secretary Ed Gaunch.

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