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Reporter’s Notebook: A chorus of yawns in Charleston

The 2020 legislative session starts Wednesday, Jan. 8, and I’m struggling with what I can fill this column up with. Based on what media heard last week, this is not going to be a very exciting session.

It’s understandable. It’s an election year, with all 100 House of Delegates seats and half the state Senate on the ballot for the May 12 primary. To paraphrase Del. Mick Bates, D-Raleigh, one of the three rules of elections is don’t tick anybody off.

That’s not to say that there won’t be issues introduced designed to get the bases of both political parties off the bench and raising Hell. But the budget — the most important thing done during the 60-day session — won’t be a big fight. Everyone can see the numbers, which aren’t great but could be much worse just as they were going into 2017.

As long as current tax revenue numbers remain within about 2 percent of the estimates, I don’t expect major budget cuts going into the next fiscal year starting in July. It sounds like Gov. Jim Justice and the Department of Revenue are looking at all state agencies to see where they can make surgical changes to how those agencies spend your money and do business. We’ll get the full details of the budget when it is presented to reporters just prior to the Governor’s State of the State address Wednesday night.

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Republican and Democratic panelists during the West Virginia Press Association’s Legislative Lookahead also confirm that they don’t plan to battle back and forth on crafting the budget. It does neither side any good to fight over the budget.

However, expect a fight over the continued efforts to remove the business and inventory tax. Lawmakers estimate that removing the tax would cost $100 million in tax collections but could be easily made up in the long-term as businesses spend more money on expansion and manufacturing equipment that no longer has to be taxed on its value.

Would removing the tax help? I think so, but I don’t think its effects would be seen for several years. For more than 20 years, both Republican and Democratic governors have created task forces and have been told to ditch the tax. But it’s a heavy lift, requiring a two-thirds vote in both chambers and a special election for the public to approve removing the tax from Article 10 of the West Virginia Constitution.

County commissions and boards of education also get understandably concerned when talk of repealing the tax comes up, as most of the revenue funds those entities. The version of the resolution being presented to county commissioners (and written by the West Virginia Manufacturers Association) would phase out the tax by $25 million every year for four years.

Republican lawmakers believe they can help make up the loss in tax revenue to counties and schools in the short-term with money direct from the general revenue budget. If they can guarantee the funding, I think counties will breathe easier and I can see the effort even getting some Democratic lawmakers on board. But will it get to two-thirds support? Stay tuned.

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I do expect some social issue/culture fights that will be dramatic but won’t move the needle much with the public. It seems apparent the Fairness Act, which is picking up steam and support among interest groups, will likely be trapped in a committee and doomed to spend its legislative life as a discharge motion.

What started as optimism when Senate President Mitch Carmichael, R-Jackson, participated in the rollout of the effort to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s housing and employment non-discrimination laws has turned into disappointment by some. First was the “panel discussion” organized by Carmichael, made up of all Baptists who were unified in their opposition to the Fairness Act.

Second was Carmichael, at the Lookahead Friday, stating clearly that while he supports non-discrimination, he does not support the Fairness Act.

“I have not come out in support of this legislation. I just want to clarify that,” Carmichael said. “I am evaluating various options as it relates to ensuring that we adhere to a non-discrimination policy in the State of West Virginia.”

How you do that without putting sexual orientation and gender identity on the list of protected classes is beyond me, but we’ll see how that works out.

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Lastly, some self-promotion. On Friday, Jan. 10, I’m launching a podcast focused on West Virginia politics and government. It’s called “State of the State,” and it will feature relaxed conversations with government leaders, lawmakers, advocates, public policy experts, fellow reporters, and more.

You can listen and subscribe to “State of the State” on iTunes, Stitcher, TuneIn, iHeartRadio, and wherever you listen to podcasts. If you enjoy watching the legislative session or elections, it will be a fun way to follow along.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com

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