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Gov. Justice, legislative leaders look back at 2021 session, personal income tax drama

Steven Allen Adams HANSHAW — House Speaker Roger Hanshaw meets the press Sunday just minutes after the House of Delegates gaveled out.

CHARLESTON — Despite the crash-and-burn of the personal income tax phase-out bill, Gov. Jim Justice and leaders of the West Virginia Senate and House of Delegates called the 2021 legislative session a success.

The Legislature adjourned Saturday night at midnight, ending 60 days operating under unusual circumstances as both bodies instituted rules to ensure COVID-19 didn’t spread to lawmakers and staff.

According to the Legislature’s website, out of the 2,039 bills introduced since the start of session on Feb. 10, 281 bills completed the legislative process, nearly 14 percent of the total bills. As of Sunday, Justice had signed 78 bills and only vetoed one bill, which the Legislature corrected and sent back.

Speaking after Saturday night’s floor session, Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, said the 2021 session had many successes for the first session with Republican supermajorities.

Those successes were possible due to good communication and aggressively working to move legislation early in case of a COVID-19 outbreak.

“We couldn’t have made it better,” Blair said. “The way the House and the Governor’s Office and the Senate all worked together, and that’s both the minority and the majority. We all worked well together. Our staff was able to focus and work with us as well, and be able to be very, very productive. I’m proud of everybody. I never dreamed it could be this good.”

Hanshaw also said he was happy.

“We started this session with the cloud of the pandemic hanging over us, so we took some steps to make sure people were safe and that we could conduct the business of the session as efficiently as we could, as safely as we could,” Hanshaw said. “And that meant that we by necessity had to do some things a lot faster, a lot earlier, than perhaps might’ve been done in a typical regular legislative session.”

Out of the 87 bills introduced on behalf of Justice, 35 bills passed the Legislature. Speaking Saturday night with reporters at the Governor’s Mansion, Justice said the session turned out great.

“I’m really pleased and everything,” Justice said. “If you’ll step back and look at what we’ve accomplished, we did things to bring more opportunity, from business and jobs and all the different things to our state. That’s got to be the theme of what was accomplished.”

The Legislature was able to pass bills creating an intermediate court of appeals to create a better legal climate for both the public and businesses, making it easier to obtain occupational and contractor licenses, changing tax laws to encourage work-from-home employees to relocate to West Virginia, and creating a savings program for young people wishing to go into a trade and vocational program.

“We’ve actually gotten a lot of things accomplished this session that we’re really proud of,” Hanshaw said. “So many of the people that we want to bring here are the men and women who could help us actually build things, who can actually help us start and grow businesses. To do that, you need a workforce. A lot of what we focused on are things that are designed to help people create and grow a workforce here.”

Despite the successes cited by Justice, Hanshaw and Blair, most of the attention this session was on the failure of the effort to phase out the personal income tax. While the governor and Senate Republicans came to a compromise plan of cutting rates by 50 percent and raising the consumer sales tax and other taxes, the House preferred a slow phase-out that didn’t raise any taxes.

The Senate passed its compromise plan and sent it to the House on Thursday. When the House didn’t take up the message, Justice criticized House Republican leadership in a briefing Friday, accusing them of being afraid to vote. Shortly after, the House took up the bill and refused to concur with the Senate in a unanimous vote, effectively killing the bill.

Justice remained critical of the House, though he took a less hostile tone Saturday. Justice again vowed to hit the road to explain his tax plan to the public in traveling town halls.

He said he would call a special session for tax reform, but only if there is agreement between himself, the House and Senate and the business community.

“It’s something I’m surely not going to give up on in any way,” Justice said. “I would love to do it sooner, but I will only do it when I’m really convinced that people genuinely understand. When I call us back, I’ll call us back with the people of West Virginia.”

“If we’re able to get (the personal income tax) forward and done here in the next month or two, which I’ve got a prediction that we do. I think that we can get there,” Blair said. “It’s going to be a game-changer…that will bring the economic recovery we need for the state of West Virginia.”

Hanshaw, asked about a special session for the personal income tax, was more reserved. While he didn’t immediately commit to the idea, he did see conversations about study of the personal income tax phase-out happening over the next several months.

“We’ll be talking about it over the course of the next couple of weeks,” Hanshaw said. “We do intend to work a full interim schedule this coming year. And I’m sure that during the course of those regular monthly interim meetings, while we’re here, continued discussion on what the future is for personal income tax reduction plans in West Virginia will be a part of what we spend our time here doing.”

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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