The West Virginia State Capitol. Photo by Bill Dickinson/Flickr.

This week, state lawmakers return to the Capitol for the first legislative session since the beginning of a pandemic that has so far claimed the lives of 2,150 West Virginians. 

The Republican majority’s priorities include tax cuts that would favor richer West Virginians and charter schools. Less clear: whether or not lawmakers plan to help the West Virginians who still need help meeting basic needs, including putting food on the table and paying for rent and utilities.

Republicans have a supermajority in both chambers of the legislature, so they will likely be able to pass their legislative priorities without Democratic support. This year, they want to eliminate a tax that funds more than 40% of the state budget. They also want to pass “school choice” bills, meaning they want to make it easier for parents to send their children to private or charter schools. 

But this session comes as poverty is growing in West Virginia, and organizations working to connect West Virginians to aid say requests for help show no signs of slowing down. Enrollment in Medicaid, a health insurance program for low-income West Virginians, has grown from about 499,000 people in March of 2020 to 563,000 in December.

Non-farm employment declined 6% from February 2020 to December 2020, according to the left-leaning West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, citing federal Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

And both legislative priorities would disproportionately benefit people who aren’t among the hardest hit financially by the coronavirus. 

Income tax

“In 2020, we saw a 600% increase in the amount of calls we received [to the United Way’s 211 helpline] and we can attribute that, in my opinion, directly to the pandemic,” said Trena Dacal, executive director of the United Way of Southern West Virginia.

Her agency received more than 3,600 calls last year, the majority for utility, food or rent assistance, she said. 

Doris Starcher Selko, executive director of the REACHH-Family Resource Center in Summers County, said serving clients has been more difficult. 

“It’s hard to do home visits,” she said. “We were delivering food to the kids for weekend food and helping the school system deliver food, but over the past couple weeks we had to stop doing that because the county went to the red status [due to COVID-19 cases].”

She noticed they were receiving requests for help paying utility bills, which was unusual. Gov. Jim Justice  announced a utility assistance payment program in October, but it only applied to bills incurred from March to July. And many county residents didn’t lose their jobs right away, Selko said.

“A lot of the things that they put in place were gone by the time we got hit the hardest,” she said.

Despite this backdrop, a primary concern for Senate Republicans this year is the repeal of the personal income tax, which contributed nearly $2 billion to the state budget in fiscal year 2020 (which ended June 30). 

Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, has said Republicans plan to repeal the tax to bring more people to West Virginia, although he hasn’t offered any evidence this would occur. He’s also said lawmakers plan to use a phased-in approach while keeping the budget “revenue neutral.” 

This means Republicans intend to offer a plan by which the state would bring in the same amount of money, so lawmakers would have to raise taxes or expand the tax base somehow to offset the loss of the income tax. 

Or, they’d have to drastically cut services offered by state agencies, such as the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Resources — state agencies that provide social services and safety net programs, such as early education, Medicaid and food assistance, for West Virginians in need.

Even if the state can avoid cuts to services that would disproportionately harm lower-income West Virginians, people who make more money would benefit more from the elimination of the personal income tax. And one solution being floated by Republicans in the House of Delegates to make up the loss in revenue — increasing the sales tax — would be a bigger hit to low and middle-income residents.

Economists say low- and middle-income people spend a greater percentage of their money on goods and basic needs that include a sales tax, including groceries, clothes and school supplies. Wealthier people have more money to invest or save.

Blair insists Republicans won’t raise taxes on West Virginians and mentioned taxing a “booming underground cash economy.” It’s not clear what exactly that “booming underground cash economy” is — and Blair didn’t respond to a request for clarification. 

Republicans also said they want to ensure tourists pay their fair share. But lawmakers haven’t addressed whether new taxes on tourists would hurt  their other stated goal of boosting the tourism industry as a way to bring in more revenue. 

Another potential source of income, according to Republican lawmakers: bringing people to the state to work remotely, in part by working on broadband access.  

But it’s unclear how to make up a $2 billion drop in income tax revenue from those industries. Tourists and other out-of-state visitors spent $4.6 billion in the state in the 2018 calendar year, according to the West Virginian Tourism Office. And the state lost another 10,000 people in 2020, according to Census figures cited by MetroNews.

Republicans and Democrats both support working on increasing access to broadband. As for education, Democrats said they want to get more kids enrolled in summer learning programs. 

Republican leaders say they can cut government spending by getting rid of wasteful spending. 

However, they haven’t said exactly what they consider wasteful. And according to a document reported on by the local media website Dragline, House Republicans are considering cutting spending by enacting some combination of the following measures: increasing or expanding the sales tax, reinstating the food tax, eliminating funding for West Virginia and Marshall universities, eliminating the Promise Scholarship and temporarily increasing the personal income tax for wealthy people. 

House of Delegates Majority Whip Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, who emailed the survey to delegates, said later that none of the options should be considered a “plan” and some of those options were “nonstarters.”

Long-term losses

Besides the income tax repeal and despite the ongoing health crisis, legislative leaders have said another priority is advancing school choice legislation and haven’t offered any specifics on health care bills. 

National data suggests “school choice” measures would likely segregate poorer families from those more affluent, according to Erin McHenry-Sorber, coordinator of the higher education administration program and associate professor at WVU.

“They tend to leave poorer students in poorer schools,” she said.

Similar legislation has been contentious in recent years. In 2019, lawmakers passed a charter school bill after battling with teachers unions, but charter school advocates disliked the final version, saying it wouldn’t actually result in charter schools. 

Teachers unions argued that struggling schools couldn’t afford any more funding cuts. Advocates for charter schools — alternatives to traditional schools that have less regulation — argue that the money follows the child. 

However, teachers unions also noted that money, had it stayed in traditional schools, would also have been spent on things like cleaning the schools, paying staff and building upkeep.

Lawmakers also attempted to allow education savings accounts in West Virginia last year, but failed. They’re likely to bring this measure up again this year. Such accounts would allow parents to use public money on other educational expenses, such as homeschooling, private schools and tutoring. But lower-income families couldn’t send their children to private school if their parents still lacked enough money to pay the entire cost of tuition or for transportation to the school.

Dr. Michael Kilkenny, director of the Cabell-Huntington Health Department, noted that the pandemic has worsened “social determinants” of health — meaning factors like loss of income and educational attainment can have long-term effects on a person’s health and even affect how soon they die. 

He said that impact is even more devastating for poor children.

“There will be a whole generation of school students whose education was interrupted and has to be rebuilt and all of that impacts public health long-term so we’ve got probably forty years of recovery in income and education and everything else from this pandemic,” he said. “This is not a one-and-done, gone-and-forgotten event.”

A family that experienced lost income or a kid who lost educational opportunity may experience related problems for decades, Kilkenny said.

“Look at the lives of the people whose jobs were lost for a year and perhaps they’ve been displaced from their homes and perhaps they were renting and not evicted but now they owe back rent,” he said. “Look at that impact on the economy of that family.”

Jim Harris, executive director of the free clinic Health Access in Harrison County, said the clinic has seen an increase in patients, because many lost their incomes, and others suffered a drastic reduction in income. 

He also noticed an increase in hunger and in people who make too much for Medicaid, but still can’t afford health care.

Harris also noted that food banks and charities have worked to serve more people, but the calls for help remain steady. People still fall through the cracks, and the number of people living in poverty is growing, he noted. 

“I think it has increased the need for a safety net,” Harris said.

In events previewing the session, lawmakers didn’t address safety net programs. Health care was discussed briefly — some Republicans said they want to make permanent the regulations that were rolled back during the pandemic.

“There’s been all kinds of discussion of a single-payer system and of socialized medicine and all of those things, and the politicians line up one party against another, and the sad reality is that while all of these discussions are occurring, people are still without access,” Harris said.

Correction: The West Virginia Legislature passed the charter school bill in 2019.

Erin Beck is Mountain State Spotlight's Community Watchdog Reporter.