This post has been updated.

No one campaigned on robbing the poor to pay the rich. But this year in budget negotiations, Senate Republicans and the Democratic Governor were pressing HARD to eliminate the income tax, a move that would force working people to hand over their hard-earned dollars to give big breaks to millionaires.

Luckily, no one in the House—Republican OR Democrat—was having it.

We ended up with something no one is happy with, but at least it doesn’t tax the poor to pay the rich. It is a budget balanced on the backs of young people, though. Not only that: it also kicks the can down the road. Our budget problem will be even worse next year.

That’s the short version of the expensive special session that we taxpayers just had to pay for.

The bottom line: we have a serious priority problem here in WV.

Our priorities are among the four things we need to focus on to achieve good government. And it’s not just budgetary priorities, either. As West Virginians, we should be concerned when the priorities of our legislators are so skewed that we’re forced to pay for a special session because legislators were so busy in the regular session considering forced pooling (2017) or raw milk (2016) that they just didn’t get around to a responsible budget.

This is just not sensible time management. And the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of legislative leadership. They set the agenda. They decide whether we’ll be debating revenue bills and the budget… or whether they want to instead try to pass Cancer Creek, with zero promise of any benefit for citizens. They decide whether to spend time on the “Right to Trespass” bill, co-sponsored by Delegate Harshbarger, a direct attack on our property rights—or to spend time on things that will improve our lives and preserve our constitutional rights.

We can march on with our property rights respected. We can go on without immediate access to raw milk shares. We can go on with our water protections intact. But we can’t go on without a budget.

So why don’t we prioritize with that in mind?

What makes this WV priority problem worse is that the money we spend on the special sessions could also be far better used for other things. In total, the special session in 2016 lasted 17 days. At about $35K per day, the total we spent then was more than a half million dollars. And in 2017, the special session was 20 days, which is likely to cost nearly three quarters of a million dollars.

Over two years, could have fixed 50,000 or so potholes with the money we wasted due to our priorities problem.

And even beyond the accounting cost of the legislative session, there is economic opportunity cost, too. Our legislative time could have been spent more lucratively. For example, decriminalizing cannabis would have saved our state $17 million a year. Legalizing it would add $194 million to our bottom line.

Remember: if we spend a half million for a special session that would net us nearly $200 million, lead to drops in opioid overdose deathsfewer opioid prescriptions, plus a booming tourism industry (jobs!), that makes time spent working on cannabis not only a fiscally responsible choice, but a socially responsible choice. On the other hand, if we spend time working for industry and allowing them to trespass and dirty our water, that results in increased health impacts and costs, reduced property values, as well as a loss of property rights and civil liberties.

So think of all the other things we could have spent time on that would have been worthwhile… and possibly unanimous.

And on and on.

Our government needs to prioritize its time focusing on legislation that would help our citizens AND provide the most return to our citizens, so we can we get out of this budget hole, and fix things in the long term.

 

We can’t keep making deals with the devil. We can’t sell our souls for short term gain. We need to invest in projects like good roads, good schools, and good internet. Infrastructure investment like that is attractive to all businesses. That means jobs!

Sean O’Leary, Senior Policy Analyst for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, explains:

“Maintaining our roads and bridges supports businesses and provides immediate job opportunities for West Virginians, while creating lasting benefits that will make the state’s future economy stronger.”

When we don’t prioritize the right things in both short and long term, our state budget—and our people—will continue to suffer.