The 2024 West Virginia regular legislative session kicked off this past Wednesday, January 10. WVCBP executive director, Kelly Allen, issued the following statement in response to Governor Justice’s State of the State address:
Unfortunately, the rosy picture Governor Justice painted is not the reality for many West Virginians in counties all over the state who’ve seen too little public investment while policymakers prioritized taxpayer-funded corporate subsidies and tax cuts that primarily benefited the state’s wealthiest people.
After five years of flat state budgets that drove multiple crises across the state, tonight presented an opportunity for the governor to lead by calling for much-needed investments for children and families to counter years of austerity. Instead, he promised more tax cuts and relied primarily on one-time bandaids to address hunger and other major needs.
We call on lawmakers to reject another austerity budget and oppose more tax cuts tilted towards the state’s wealthiest. Instead, they must enact a budget that meets the need Governor Justice acknowledged in our schools, health care system, and for our children.
As the 2024 legislative session gets underway, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy staff would like to invite you to join us at our inaugural Budget and Bites Happy Hour, taking place next Wednesday, January 17.
For the past 10 years, the WVCBP has hosted our annual Budget Breakfast to provide analysis of the Governor’s proposed budget. Don’t fret—we’ll still provide our budget analysis at Budget and Bites, but we wanted to evolve our event into something more informal and fun. You’ll hear from our executive director, Kelly Allen, our senior policy analyst, Sean O’Leary, and have the opportunity to engage with the rest of the WVCBP team.
Please find further event details below. You can register for the event here. Please note, the registration deadline is today, January 12.
WHEN: January 17, 2024 from 4:30-6:00pm.
WHAT: At 5:00pm, executive director Kelly Allen will introduce senior policy analyst Sean O’Leary, who will give a short analysis of the Governor’s proposed budget. Guests can ask questions and enjoy an informal meet and greet with the rest of the WVCBP team following the presentation. Appetizers and drinks will be provided.
WHERE: West Virginia School Service Personnel Association Conference Center (1610 Washington St. E., Charleston, WV 25311)
We appreciate your ongoing support of the WVCBP and we hope you can join us next week!
A new report released this week from our colleagues at the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) shows West Virginia has an upside down tax system where the wealthiest one percent pay less in taxes as a share of income than any other household—a gap that has only grown wider since 2023’s state income tax cuts.
This analysis provides further proof that recent income tax cuts have overwhelmingly benefited the state’s wealthiest households, while doing little for low- and middle-income families who pay a greater share of their incomes to taxes than the top one percent.
“The tax changes enacted in West Virginia last year made our tax system even more regressive with the top one percent paying a lower tax rate than low- and middle-income households and contributing to an austerity budget that fails to meet the needs of West Virginia families,” says WVCBP executive director, Kelly Allen. “That disparty will grow even larger if policymakers allow automatic triggers that will eventually eliminate the personal income tax and, with it, 40 percent of our state budget, to go into effect.”
Read ITEP’s full report here.
During the first months of the pandemic, West Virginia experienced a sharp decline in jobs, with total nonfarm employment falling from 756,806 in January 2020 to 642,446 in April 2020. Thanks to a strong federal response, including stimulus checks, enhanced unemployment benefits, and supports for businesses and workers, the state slowly gained back the jobs lost, with total employment reaching 758,168 in November of 2023, a gain of 1,362. However, there is great variation across the state, with most of the employment growth occurring in a handful of counties, while 18 counties are still below their pre-pandemic employment numbers.
Economy Varies Widely by Region
Proposed legislation in West Virginia in 2023 would have cut the number of weeks workers are eligible for unemployment from the current level of 26 weeks to as few as 12 weeks. Calculated using a practice known as “indexing,” the number of weeks available would fluctuated based on the statewide average unemployment rate.
At the county level, cutting weeks of unemployment eligibility would create significant hardship for workers in areas of the state that have yet to fully recover from the pandemic. For example, while statewide employment growth totaled 1,362 from January 2020 to November 2023, county employment growth ranged from a loss of 2,182 in Kanawha County to a gain of 1,298 in Cabell County. Eighteen counties are still experiencing the impact of the pandemic, with less employment in November 2023 than in January 2020. On the other end of the spectrum, three counties, Cabell, Hampshire, and Jefferson have each experienced employment gains of over 1,000 compared to their pre-pandemic levels. This means that just two counties account for more than double the state’s net employment growth. With so much of the state’s recent job growth driven by just a few counties, workers across the state are experiencing vastly different job markets. In counties still struggling to recover from the pandemic, indexing unemployment rates to a statewide average would be especially harmful.
Read Sean’s full fact sheet.
West Virginia’s regional jail system has long been overcrowded and deadly. New research reveals that these overcrowded conditions have led incarcerated people to be assigned to sleep on the floor due to lack of beds. A recent article, including insight from WVCBP criminal legal policy analyst Sara Whitaker, provides further details. Excerpt below:
Overcrowding problems are widespread in West Virginia’s jails, said Sara Whitaker, criminal legal policy analyst with the progressive West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy.
Her research, built by state responses to Freedom of Information Act requests, has led to the conclusion that about a significant number of people in jail have to sleep on mattresses on the floor. State officials have said not only that mattresses are issued, but that they come with a sturdy frame.
For example, the North Central Regional Jail was designed originally to house 394 people. By this past Dec. 4, North Central’s inmate population was 760. Even with additional beds allowed at the facility, Whitaker’s research shows 228 people assigned to the floor there.
The raw data that the state provided to Whitaker showed these floor bed assignments: 200 people at Western Regional Jail in Barboursville, 176 at Southwestern Regional Jail in Logan County, 164 at Eastern Regional Jail in Martinsburg, 162 at South Central Regional Jail in Charleston and 156 at Southern Regional Jail near Beckley.
Corrections provided information for the number of people in each regional jail facility with a bed assignment number ending in ‘floor’ or any code/abbreviation for ‘floor’ According to the response, the grand total of the state’s numbers of inmates assigned to the floor as of Dec. 4 was 1,284.
After this story was initially published, officials with Corrections questioned whether those numbers truly reflect the number of people assigned to the floor. Marshall, the Corrections commissioner, testified to lawmakers that the state’s tracking system hadn’t been updated to properly account for assignments. He said that is being improved.
The actual number assigned to the floor on that Dec. 4 date was 285, Marshall told lawmakers on the jails oversight committee.
“Now keep in mind that these individuals are not sleeping on the floor unprotected,” Marshall told lawmakers. “They sleep in what they call a boat. It looks like a kayak, for lack of a better term. It sits about a foot off the ground, it’s fiberglass, and the regular, standard-issue mattress fits inside.”
He added, “It is a result of having too many inmates assigned in a facility that’s designed for a certain number.”
Whitaker noted that they are the state’s own numbers and that it’s a continuing challenge to assess conditions in West Virginia’s jails if figures provided by the state aren’t fully reliable.
Whitaker, a former public defender, has a range of proposals for how West Virginia might alleviate the overcrowding problem.
Among those would be a critical look at legislation calling for new criminal offenses and longer sentences. Long sentences don’t make us safer, she said, but they have turned prisons into warehouses for an aging population. “The governor can veto legislation that will continue turning our prison system into nursing homes,” she said.
Another policy consideration would be ensuring defendants have access to meaningful bail.
And probation and parole were conceived originally as reforms to keep people out of prison. But last year, 1 in 4 people who entered a West Virginia prison were incarcerated for a “technical violation” of probation or parole, she said. For example, that could include a positive drug screen or missing a supervision appointment.
“This governor can support legislation that would end technical violations – saving hundreds of people from prison when they haven’t committed a new crime,” Whitaker said.
And the Governor, the parole board, and corrections commissioner also have the power to release people who are elderly, ill or who do not pose a threat to the community. Those instances are incredibly rare, Whitaker said. “It is time for the executive branch to use all the tools at its disposal – medical respite and compassionate release, pardon and parole – to send more people home,” she said.
Such paths can only be taken if there’s straight talk about conditions in the jails, she said.
“We can’t expect the legislature to solve this deadly crisis if they are not being told the truth about how people live in West Virginia jails,” Whitaker said.
Read the full article here.
Enacting the annual state budget is expected to be more complicated this legislative session than in past years. As part of the tax cut package enacted in 2023, lawmakers didn’t just slash the personal income tax once—they also set into motion a ticking clock that will eventually fully eliminate the tax without any replacement revenue. That’s because the law included a complicated triggering mechanism that automatically enacts more tax cuts if a modest “trigger” is met, regardless of spending needs at that time. To put it plainly, the triggers in the 2023 tax cut package mean that more tax cuts that primarily benefit the wealthy are first in line as a state priority—before funding PEIA, child care, raises for state employees, infrastructure investments, or any number of other pressing needs.
These triggers are likely to make it more difficult for lawmakers to address multiple crises created by years of flat budgets that have underfunded critical state services. Together with the lack of long-range budget planning from the Justice Administration, the triggers likely mean more underfunding-driven crises in coming years unless lawmakers reverse course.
Prior to discussing the harms of the triggers, it’s worth revisiting the initial tax cuts from HB 2526, which significantly reduced personal income tax rates, with about two-thirds of the benefits going to the top 20 percent of taxpayers. The bottom 20 percent of households will receive $21 per year on average, while the top 1 percent will get around $10,000 annually.
Notably, West Virginia won’t feel the full brunt of the 2023 income tax cuts right away because of the inclusion of the aforementioned triggers that will further reduce the personal income tax until it is eliminated. While proponents often portray tax cut triggers like those in HB 2526 as fiscally responsible, they are far from it, as they enact future tax cuts without adequate information about the economy or budget needs at the time that those cuts will take effect.
Lawmakers enacting these drawn out tax cuts often do not have enough information to fully understand if the cuts will be responsible or desirable when they take effect. This is exactly what happened in West Virginia, where the governor and legislative leaders pushed sweeping tax cuts even without a six-year financial plan, which has historically served as the state’s long-range budget planning tool.
The triggers in the tax cut law essentially create a forcing mechanism for current and future legislators to underfund public services, as the tax cuts will happen automatically unless lawmakers reverse course and repeal the triggers.
Despite the clear need for new investments to offset years of austerity and flat budgets, tax cut triggers prioritize more cuts for the state’s wealthiest households instead. But let’s say for the sake of argument that lawmakers determine that the state can truly afford more tax cuts. Even then, design of the automatic triggers is still problematic, making the typical budgeting process incredibly difficult for lawmakers as it introduces more uncertainty.
Lawmakers typically pass the state budget for the fiscal year that runs from July 1 to June 30 the prior March based on expected revenues from current tax rates. Under the tax law, the Secretary of Revenue is directed to determine if the trigger was met in August—already two months into the fiscal year—and, if it was, an additional tax rate cut happens in January, the middle of the fiscal year in which lawmakers have already enacted a budget based on previous tax rates.
This uncertainty could result in state lawmakers either feeling they need to underfund the budget in the event a tax cut is automatically triggered or being forced to make mid-year budget cuts to agencies and programs when triggers go into effect. This creates an untenable and difficult budgeting scenario for lawmakers.
We will soon see how the governor and lawmakers will approach budgeting this year given the revenue uncertainty the triggers create. What is clear is that the state has many unmet needs due to years of austerity, and these needs should be prioritized over additional tax cuts that mostly benefit the state’s wealthiest people. Lawmakers can begin to do this by repealing the triggers and waiting to enact additional tax cuts if they feel they are warranted through a proactive and fiscally responsible process that incorporates long-term budget planning.
Read Kelly’s full blog post.
Addressing West Virginia’s ongoing jails crisis requires listening to those who have been harmed by the criminal legal system, not only those who control it. But as our recent fact sheet shows, this has not been the case in the Mountain State.
For 21 months, West Virginia has been embroiled in a preventable jail crisis that the executive branch has failed to adequately address. During that time, lawmakers never asked for testimony from people living behind bars or from the parents, spouses, or children of people living behind bars.
The legislature has two dedicated committees tasked with keeping lawmakers informed about the conditions in West Virginia jails: the House Committee on Jails and Prisons (“House Committee on Jails”) and the Legislative Oversight Committee on Regional Jail and Correctional Facility Authority (“Legislative Oversight Committee”).
The House Committee on Jails, which convenes during the regular legislative session, heard testimony from three people in 2023 – all were either in leadership or in charge of the Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR).
The Legislative Oversight Committee is a joint committee of delegates and senators with meetings held during legislative interims. Since April 2022, that committee has held 15 meetings. Only two of the 32 witnesses—or 6.3 percent—who testified to the committee were formerly incarcerated. The committee chose to hear no testimony from people residing in any of the state’s regional jails. Nor did they hear from the loved ones of incarcerated people. Instead, the committee heard mostly from people in leadership at the DCR: a total of 12 appearances.
The next few months will provide an opportunity for lawmakers to do what the governor has not yet done: conduct a truly thorough and credible investigation of West Virginia’s jails crisis.
Download Sara’s full fact sheet here.
Read Sara’s accompanying blog post further detailing the importance of working with directly impacted individuals to address the jails crisis here.
The WVCBP is hiring a state policy fellow!
The position is a two-year research-focused fellowship dedicated to making change through careful research, thoughtful advocacy, and strong partnerships.
The fellowship is a project of the State Priorities Partnership, a national network coordinated by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, one of the nation’s premier policy institutes. As part of this exciting project, you’ll be a member of a cohort of policy fellows working in states across the country. Fellows will receive training and career development, work with mentors, and have access to ongoing opportunities for professional growth.
Applications are due February 29, 2024.
Learn more and apply here.
The third annual West Virginia Black Policy Day, hosted by Black by God The West Virginian and the West Virginia Black Voter Impact Initiative, is scheduled for February 7, 2024. In addition, the event organizers are offering a series of educational webinars leading up to the event.
October’s webinar provided valuable insights about Legislative Interims and Black infant and maternal health policies, November’s webinar gave a preview of the 2024 Black Policy Agenda, and December’s webinar detailed how Black Policy Day continues the legacies of African American organizations working in the pursuit of change.
You can learn more about Black Policy Day and purchase your ticket for the event here.
You can register for next month’s webinar (taking place on January 16 at 7pm) here.
The WVCBP’s Elevating the Medicaid Enrollment Experience (EMEE) Voices Project seeks to collect stories from West Virginians who have struggled to access Medicaid across the state. Being conducted in partnership with West Virginians for Affordable Health Care, EMEE Voices will gather insight to inform which Medicaid barriers are most pertinent to West Virginians, specifically people of color.
Do you have a Medicaid experience to share? We’d appreciate your insight. Just fill out the contact form on this webpage and we’ll reach out to you soon. We look forward to learning from you!
You can watch WVCBP’s health policy analyst Rhonda Rogombé and West Virginians for Affordable Health Care’s Mariah Plante further break down the project and its goals in this FB Live.