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A few thoughts on the legislative session

As I write this Sunday, I’m still recovering from the end of the 2021 legislative session that ended at midnight Saturday. It was truly a 60-day rollercoaster and certainly a session for the history books.

I’m going to highlight several things that happened this session, so bear with me.

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First, I will be happy when the legislative session next year returns to some form of normalcy. I surely hope next year we’re not still operating under COVID-19 restrictions. As much as the video and audio streams make things easier, it’s also better to be on the floor, face-to-face with lawmakers.

Being on the floor (press tables are in front in the House chamber, in the back in the Senate chamber), you get to chit-chat with lawmakers, picking up tips and tidbits of information. It also helps lawmakers put a face to a name. It’s one thing to see a byline or tweet of mine, but it’s another when you can talk to me in person.

In many ways this was a contentious session. Part of that was because there were more freshmen lawmakers than usual. Another reason was there were no legislative interim meetings in 2020 due to COVID-19, so lawmakers didn’t have as many in-person interactions.

And the session has been weird the last couple years ever since construction crews put up gigantic drywall barriers as they worked on the dome. They’re done now and slowly taking down the maze of scaffolding, but the walls are still up for now. Traditionally, the well in the upper rotunda was a place for lawmakers, lobbyists, the press and even the public at-large to informally talk.

Like anything, communication is important, and all of these factors help contribute to a lack of communication which exacerbated tensions. Most of these factors will be gone next year and I predict that will make a huge difference.

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Except for House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, and House Majority Leader Amy Summer, R-Taylor, legislative leadership was all different this year. I think Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, Senate Minority Whip Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, House Minority Leader Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, and House Minority Whip Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, all did an excellent job in their new roles.

I’ve known Blair for a long time and worked with Blair when I worked in the Senate Clerk’s Office. Blair is passionate, outspoken and sometimes a crank. But I’ve found that whenever someone new takes the gavel, it changes them in good ways. Blair fairly presided over the Senate floor sessions. Baldwin, a pastor used to leading a flock, was able to strike a balance of bipartisanship when needed and stood firm on issues where there was disagreement. Woelfel played the role of whip well.

On the House side, Skaff and Fluharty did a good job playing good cop/bad cop, often with Skaff being the friendly face and Fluharty being the warrior. Again, they stood strong on issues where they differed from the majority but were more than capable of being bipartisan. That was seen last week in the first 0-100 vote against concurring with Senate changes to the House’s personal income tax bill.

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I think Gov. Jim Justice learned a lesson last week from that 0-100 votes against the tax plan he helped craft. He accused the House of being afraid to vote on the bill, questioned its integrity, and accused it of being bought by special interests. He left the House with no choice not only to vote against his bill, but to also defend its honor.

Justice often says he is not a politician (despite winning two elections for a political office). He’s right: he’s not a politician. A politician would have never went off like that when trying to get their signature bill across the finish line. Justice would do well to learn about President Lyndon Johnson. He also had a temper and hit at political opponents, but he did it behind-the-scenes and not on a YouTube live-stream.

I noticed he changed his tone Saturday night when talking about his tax plan and his effort to rally more support. He is going to need to rebuild some bridges with the House, but I think he can. If Justice can work out a deal on a personal income tax with both the House and Senate, it will be a win-win for all.

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Speaking of taxes, the sleeper bill of the session was House Joint Resolution 3, which will allow the Legislature to make changes or even phase out the business and inventory tax. Voters will get to decide on this constitutional amendment in a 2022 special election.

Getting rid of the business and inventory tax has long been a goal of Republicans and the business community. West Virginia is one of only a handful of states that still do this, which is odd in a state that relies on heavy machinery for its coal and natural gas industries.

Lawmakers will need to work on a plan to keep county budgets whole. Revenue from the business and inventory tax — a property tax — mostly goes to counties and county school systems. The state can make up the shortfall to schools with the School Aid Formula, but county commissions will either need assistance or a new tax stream of some sort. But removing the business and inventory tax can help spur additional economic growth.

(Adams is the state government reporter for Ogden Newspapers. He can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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