This post has been updated.
Here’s the short version of the expensive special session that WV taxpayers had to pay for last year, something that perfectly illustrates WV’s priority problem:
No one campaigned on robbing the poor to pay the rich. Even so, in the 2017 budget negotiations, Senate Republicans and the (then) 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.
Yet in 2017, we yet again ended up with a budget no one is happy with, and it was also balanced on the backs of young people. Not only that: it yet again kicked the can down the road.
Our budget problem will be even worse this year.
Why do we keep focusing on all the wrong things? Yeah: we have a serious priority problem here in WV.
Lobbyists as priorities
Lobbyists are the main priority of many of our legislators. And that’s the wrong priority. They should not be focusing on how to help corporate donors, nor on how to stay in power by getting big corporate donations by attacking property rights.
Our priority should be helping regular people; that’s 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, 2018) or raw milk (2016) that they just didn’t get around to a responsible budget.
Yet this year, they’re pushing forced pooling yet again, something both party platforms oppose (but lobbyists are buying legislators nonetheless). And they’ve also wasted time repealing a film tax credit and looking at increasing the speed limit in WV. Also, they want to open state parks to commercial logging.
Are these really the things we want our legislators to prioritize right now?!!
Of course not.
A target-rich environment for process improvement
The way they’ve been operating shows legislative leadership doesn’t have sensible time management.
And yes, 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 2017 “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.
Why aren’t we acting to protect WV landowners from eminent domain for private corporate gain? Dominion and other pipeline companies are seizing properties and damaging property values in order to ensure they can make a hefty profit by exporting gas. But regular folks aren’t going to see a benefit unless legislators are working for us; we’ll just pay the costs so wealthy CEOs can benefit.
When it comes to priorities, we can march on (and should!) with our property rights respected and intact. We can go on without immediate access to raw milk shares. And we can continue with speed limits at current levels. But we can’t go on without a budget.
So why doesn’t leadership prioritize with that in mind? Why are we wasting this time?
Our terrible, skewed legislative priorities
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, things that would help us. 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 on special sessions due to this priority problem.
And our legislators claim they just don’t have the money to offer teachers and public employees meaningful raises—the 1% raise they’ve proposed doesn’t even keep up with inflation, much less PEIA increases—but they do have the money to cut business taxes again and again, creating the budget hole.
The tax cuts are probably working, though, according to Senator Gaunch, who rationalizes that “It’s hard to say [cutting taxes] didn’t work, because things might be worse if we hadn’t.”
Goodness, how can you even respond to something like that?
Accounting Costs vs Opportunity Costs
And look, even beyond the accounting cost of the special legislative sessions, 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.
This isn’t hard math. If we spend a half million dollars for a special session that would net us $194 million, lead to drops in opioid overdose deaths, fewer 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. That’s $193.5 million UP, along with all the other social benefits.
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. This is a NET COST to the people of our state. This is what is driving people away.
Even beyond cannabis…
Think of all the other things we can be spending time on that would have been worthwhile… and possibly unanimous.
- We could remove the loophole that allows rapists to sue for child custody in WV.
- We could require Family Law judges to have experience in family law.
- We could fight animal abuse and pass Marley’s Law.
- We could require extraction companies to compensate people for damage to property values, and businesses and communities for negative impacts on tourism.
- We could eliminate self-bonding and make sure gas and oil companies are safely capping unused wells.
- We could make it illegal for companies to use bankruptcy to defraud workers of their pensions, and then pay execs million dollar bonuses for “saving” that money.
- We could require companies to pay royalty owners what they’re owed.
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.
WV’s Constant Catering to Legislative Donors
We can’t keep making deals with the devil. We can’t sell our souls for short term gain. Corporate lobbyists just don’t have our interests in mind; they are concerned with their bottom line—not ours.
We need to invest in projects like good roads, good schools, and good internet—infrastructure investment is attractive to all businesses, which 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.”
But we also need to make sure regular people aren’t paying disproportionate costs in order to benefit donor corporations like the 2017 road bond did.
Surprised you haven’t seen your local roads fixed after all those promises? Surprised jobs aren’t just rolling in? Ritchie County isn’t surprised. We knew the details of the Justice road bond.
So pay attention.
It doesn’t matter which party is in charge if it’s being bought by lobbyists who don’t have our interests in mind. In the past it was Democrats with these skewed priorities, and now it’s Republicans. Until we get the money out of politics so lobbyists are not buying weak-minded legislators, we’ll continue to have this problem no matter who is in charge.
When we don’t prioritize the right things—and when we don’t make sure regular people aren’t paying a disproportionate share of taxes—our state budget and our people will continue to suffer in both short and long term.