With a relatively short 60-day legislative session, the bills that get considered—and the ones that don’t—tell us a lot about our lawmakers’ priorities. Now that we are exactly halfway through the 2023 session, the WVCBP team lends insight into what we’ve seen prioritized so far and what we would like to see prioritized during the final 30 days of session.
Governor Jim Justice made an income tax cut the centerpiece of his 2023 legislative priorities. HB 2526 would reduce personal income tax rates by 50 percent, and with it eliminate $1.5 billion in general revenue annually once fully phased in. As we’ve previously highlighted, income tax cuts overwhelmingly benefit the state’s wealthiest households while undermining our ability to make needed investments in public services like our schools, health care system, and infrastructure. While the House quickly passed the governor’s proposal, the Senate unveiled their own plan this week. Their proposal, SB 424, would reduce the personal income tax by a smaller amount up front with future triggers to reduce it further, as well as enact voter-rejected business personal property tax cuts. The Senate suspended rules on Wednesday to rush through their proposal without careful deliberation. While Senate leadership claimed the proposal would cost around $600 million annually, the legislation was passed without a fiscal note and once fully phased in, would cost far more if it successfully eliminated the personal income tax entirely. Stay tuned for a full analysis from the WVCBP on the fiscal impacts of SB 424.
While both chambers are passing legislation that would significantly cut state revenue, we’ve also seen several positive bills moving through committees to increase reimbursement rates for PEIA; provide public teacher, school service personnel, and correctional officer pay raises; and increase child care reimbursements. However, it still remains to be seen how these two priorities—deep revenue cuts and new spending—can co-exist.
Lawmakers are finding that after years of flat budgets, new spending is necessary to adequately fund state services. But tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the wealthiest West Virginians will come at the cost of funding priorities that benefit us all.
When it comes to the criminal legal system, lawmakers seem less concerned with preventing future harm and more concerned with increasing punishment. So far, lawmakers have introduced more than 200 bills related to the criminal law. Approximately 110 bills create new offenses or increase criminal penalties for existing crimes. For this Legislature, more caging appears to be the only solution.
Although several bills would increase penalties for drug offenses (SB 49, SB 304, HB 2129, HB 2358, HB 2432, HB 2847), one stands out. SB 547 proposes a radical restructuring of the offenses and penalties in the Uniform Controlled Substances Act. It starts by increasing the penalties for the most common felony drug offense: possession with intent to deliver a Schedule I or II substance (e.g., heroin or methamphetamine). Today, a person convicted of that offense faces a maximum sentence of 1 to 15 years. If that person were sentenced to prison, they would serve one year before they were eligible for release (a decision made by the Parole Board).
SB 547 would increase the minimum time a person must serve in prison from one to three years. The Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation reports that it costs $38,099 to house a person in prison for one year. Passing SB 547 means tripling that investment in caging to $114,297 per person. Imagine instead if we invested that in after-school programs, mental health professionals, and more treatment options for substance use disorders.
But SB 547 does not stop there. The bill would make anyone convicted of this offense ineligible for probation, which would sweep even more people into our state prisons. If this bill passes, more people would be sentenced to prison, and for longer terms, despite research showing there is no relationship between longer prison terms and drug misuse.
One bill addresses an issue people impacted by the criminal legal system have long-requested: voting rights. SB 235 would restore voting rights to people convicted of felony offenses who are under community supervision, like probation or parole. The bill has stalled in a Senate Judiciary subcommittee. But research shows that it’s worth taking up. Studies have demonstrated that civic engagement is correlated with decreased risk of recidivism.
Thus far, much of the health policy discussion this legislative session has focused on perceived social problems, rather than the tangible needs that many in the Mountain State face. Despite making abortion almost entirely inaccessible in July 2022, the state continues to focus its efforts on chipping away at reproductive rights. Despite hearing directly from concerned constituents, lawmakers have also passed legislation that bans gender-affirming care for trans youth (HB 2007). Furthermore, there have been a host of bills aimed at reducing or restricting vaccine requirements, including for infants, school-aged children, and adults (SB 2, SB 32, and HB 2036). All of these bills threaten the overall wellness of the Mountain State.
A few proactive bills worth noting have also been introduced, though none have passed yet. Examples include increasing dental benefits for adults enrolled in Medicaid (SB 290), capping insulin copays (SB 577), and covering doula care via Medicaid (SB 479).
All told, lawmakers have a significant opportunity this year to pass legislation that benefits all West Virginians—they just need the political will to prioritize broadly-shared investments over handouts to the wealthy and corporations and increasing harms to vulnerable populations.