A Not-Very-Special Legislative Session
This time last week, the West Virginia Legislature was beginning its special session for Gov. Jim Justice’s 10% personal income tax cut plan, which also turned into a special session to update the state’s abortion laws. One week later, West Virginians have neither a tax cut nor an abortion bill.
By Friday afternoon, the state Senate had refused to take up the House of Delegates’ message that it passed House Bill 301, the tax cut legislation, effectively killing the bill. Instead, the Senate adopted a resolution making clear it prefers to eliminate tangible personal property taxes next year once voters approve Amendment 2 in November giving lawmakers the authority to cut or eliminate those taxes.
This really couldn’t have ended up any other way. Again, the Governor announced his tax plan a few weeks ago without giving legislative leadership a heads up. He repeatedly denied his plan was a near-exact match of the House’s personal income tax bill from earlier this year.
Justice spent the weeks leading up to this special session attacking Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley (first without naming him, then later doing so by name) over his preferred tax plan without meeting with him and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, until the weekend before the special session. And even then, Justice proceeded to use written statements and public comments during his COVID briefings to attack Senate Republicans for their tax plan.
Are these the negotiation skills a successful businessman uses to get what he wants?
I understand there are two different tax reform philosophies going on here. And I’m not prepared to say which plan is better or worse. I spent the week being pulled into meetings with this House member or that senator showing how one plan was better than the other.
It seems to me there is room for both plans to be done incrementally, such as starting out with the 10% personal income tax cut with a slow phase-out of tangible personal property taxes. I know some lawmakers on both sides were trying to work out some sort of deal, but with Justice constantly trashing Senate leadership, there wasn’t much incentive to make one.
By Friday evening, the Senate passed House Bill 302, the abortion law update and modernization bill after hours of debate on amendments — including debates between Republican senators — and over the shouts of protesters who had to be cleared from the galleries after disrupting the proceedings three times.
However, after the Senate adopted amendments to HB 302 that removed criminal penalties for medical professionals that conduct abortions outside the very narrow exceptions in the bill as well as other amendments, it was unclear that Republicans in the House had the votes to accept the bill as amended.
So, the Senate adjourned subject to the call of the chair around 10 p.m. that night. The House gaveled back in shortly after the Senate gaveled out, with a motion being adopted to not concur with the Senate changes to the bill and for the appointment of a five-member conference committee to hammer out differences between the two chambers.
There was a problem though. Once the House moved to not concur and for a conference committee, the Senate needed to accept that House message, appoint its members and send a message back to the House so they could appoint their conference committee members.
But because the Senate already adjourned, a conference committee will not be able to be appointed until Blair and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, bring the Legislature back to continue the special session, which could be Monday, Aug. 8.
Now, you and I both know that there will be negotiations behind the scenes, but a conference committee is a public meeting. Did they do it this way on purpose? No, it was clear to me seeing House attorneys upset Friday night that this was simply not the way it was supposed to go.
By Saturday afternoon, Republican leaders were trying to spin the special session not as a failure but as a work in progress.
At Saturday’s West Virginia Republican Executive Committee, Delegate Larry Pack, R-Kanawha (one of the state’s Republican National Committee members), likened the conflict between the Senate Republicans and Justice/House Republicans as a “family fight” over tax reform, and he asked state and county Republican leaders to give lawmakers “grace” to get the abortion bill right.
“It looks like we are disjointed, but we are really on the same team,” Pack said.
There was a lot of talk at the WVGOP summer meeting Saturday about 2024, and while focus was on getting Donald Trump back in the White House (no mention of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis), naturally there was mention of defeating U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.
Manchin will be up for another six-year term, assuming he decides to run again (always a 50/50 proposition with him). And he’s been polling well in the state, especially after opposing President Joe Biden’s $1.75 trillion Build Back Better social spending bill last December.
Now, after putting the brakes on a much smaller bill derived from the original Build Back Better legislation because of the high inflation the nation is seeing, Manchin is supporting the bill under the new name of the “Inflation Reduction Act.”
I’m still a little brain dead from covering the special session last week, but I do recall that Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., lost his Republican primary to Rep. Alex Mooney partly due to McKinley’s support of the bipartisan infrastructure bill. That was a bill with no social spending and a lot of good for the state and is mostly paid for.
McKinley lost. That was with Manchin crossing the aisle to endorse him. Now Manchin is supporting the Inflation Reduction Act, which many will see as Build Back Better. Even if it has provisions that are beneficial to West Virginia, it’s going to be a hard sell, much like the bipartisan infrastructure bill was. And based on an op-ed that was published Sunday, Mooney could be laying the groundwork for challenging Manchin.
Manchin is the last statewide elected Democrat in West Virginia. And Republicans are already preparing to take that seat too. Manchin might have given them the way to do that.