CHARLESTON — With the 2020 legislative session approaching its final two weeks, the pace of what has been a relatively low-key session is picking up, with multiple bills advancing in both houses — and one key bill meeting a surprisingly early demise.
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Going into the session, legislation to end a $17-million- a-year state subsidy for racing purses and breeders funds at the state’s greyhound racetracks in Wheeling Island and Nitro seemed like a sure bet.
Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, was lead sponsor of the bill (SB 285); a national anti-racing advocacy group, Grey2K USA, fresh off a 2019 victory to end greyhound racing in Florida, committed to a major advertising/lobbying campaign; and a nearly identical bill passed the Legislature in 2017, only to be vetoed by Gov. Jim Justice.
Perhaps most importantly, the ability to appropriate that $17 million had to look appealing to legislators in a tight budget year.
However, the bill’s race to the finish line hit a road bump with word that the Senate’s 14 Democratic members were looking to vote as a bloc to kill the bill.
“There’s some credence to that,” Senate Minority Leader Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, said of rumors that Senate Democrats would oppose the bill. “Our caucus is pretty adamant about not losing these jobs.”
Opponents of the bill argued that the state could not afford to lose any jobs, although just how many jobs greyhound racing provides was in dispute, with numbers ranging from 600 to 1,700.
Ultimately, after delaying a passage vote for a couple of days to try to work out a compromise, and even with Carmichael leaving the president’s dais to give a floor speech in support of the bill, it was defeated in the Senate by an overwhelming 11-23 margin.
“This state is on the wrong side of history on this issue, and it will be proven, and then, I probably won’t say it, but I could say, ‘I told you so,’” Carmichael said after the bill was rejected.
Carmichael said that while the $17 million that the bill would have freed up is not built into the Senate’s 2020-21 budget plan, not having those funds available to appropriate will make it more difficult to fund new programs being advanced this legislative session.
“It deters our ability to fund foster care, dental expansion for Medicaid, a variety of really great programs that West Virginia citizens need and deserve,” he said, referencing bills advancing this session to increase foster care funding by $17 million a year, and to expand Medicaid coverage to include dental care, at a cost of about $8.8 million a year.
Meanwhile, Carmichael and Senate leadership could be facing a similar setback on a joint resolution for an amendment to the state Constitution to remove a number of personal property taxes that are written into the Constitution — the first step toward a phase-out of those taxes (SJR 9).
The change would repeal more than $300 million of taxes currently paid on manufacturing equipment, machinery, and inventory, other business inventory, as well as on motor vehicles.
A companion bill would make up about $200 million of that lost revenue through a 0.5 percent increase in the consumer sales tax and steep increases on cigarette, tobacco and e-cigarette/vaping products. However, county commissions, school boards and municipalities have raised concerns about potentially devastating revenue losses.
Senate Democrats offered an amendment to limit the tax cut to motor vehicles only, reducing its impact to about $100 million, and in the words of Sen. Mike Romano, D-Harrison, giving relief to citizens of the state, rather than to out-of-state corporations.
“We could help the citizens of the state who need help the most, people who vote for us, West Virginians,” he said. “The money we put back into working West Virginians’ pockets goes back into the economy and creates growth.”
While the amendment was rejected by a narrow 15-17, it could be notable since joint resolutions require two-thirds votes in both houses for passage, or 23 “yes” votes in the Senate, meaning that if Democrats continue to vote as a bloc, the resolution would fail.
Also at the Capitol, the House of Delegates passed and sent to the Senate legislation to strengthen the state’s overwhelmed foster-care system, including increasing reimbursement payments to foster families (HB 4092), and to accelerate parole eligibility for certain non-violent offenders in hopes of reducing overcrowding in state prisons and Regional Jails (SB 620).