Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, presides over the chamber after the passage of a sweeping tax cut proposal. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography.

Tomorrow is the halfway point of the legislative session and that means major bills are starting to get closer and closer to the Governor’s desk. 

Below, a look at a watered-down version of a family planning bill that was previously considered during a special session to ban abortion last summer. Plus, the big education bill that would hire 2,500 teachers’ aides is out of committee. But first, it’s all about tax cuts in the Senate.

Senate passes sweeping tax cut plan hours after unveiling it

After weeks of tension between legislators and Gov. Jim Justice, the West Virginia Senate announced its long awaited tax plan Wednesday morning, and then unanimously passed the bill hours later after suspending constitutional rules.

The plan, which was explained in detail on the Senate floor by Senate Finance Committee Chair Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, aims to return $600 million to West Virginians through various tax reductions, eliminations and rebates. Most notably, it initially cuts the personal income tax by 15% but allows for further reductions after the state passes certain sales tax collection thresholds, and would also provide a 50% rebate on equipment and inventory taxes paid by small businesses.

Senators have presented the plan as a “responsible” and “sustainable” approach to cutting taxes. “Our plan provides relief for low-income families, senior citizens, disabled veterans, and small business owners, and it eliminates the penalty married couples incur when they file their tax returns jointly in West Virginia,” Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, said in a press release. “Our plan provides relief for virtually everybody.”

According to the bill’s text, the legislation would also eliminate what Senate leadership describes as a “marriage penalty” applied to couples who file taxes jointly. It also provides several rebates: a rebate on homestead property taxes for severely service-disabled military veterans, as well as a rebate for the annual vehicle taxes West Virginians pay to counties, something that Blair said would allow lower-income people to “benefit from this plan, too.” 

The latter rebate incorporates the vehicle tax plan introduced by Gov. Jim Justice last fall; experts previously told Mountain State Spotlight that the plan as initially written was unlikely to have a significant impact on low-income West Virginians.

Senate leadership argues that their tax plan is a “bill that pulls together the ideas of the Governor, House of Delegates, and the Senate,” serving as a compromise between groups that have notably been sparring over taxes for the past several months. Much of the recent discord stems from last year’s Amendment 2 proposal, which was strongly supported by House and Senate leadership but was heavily criticized by Justice. The amendment was ultimately rejected by nearly two-thirds of voters. 

That acrimony has since spilled into this legislative session, as Justice and lawmakers clash over the best way to return part of the state’s current budget surplus to taxpayers. Justice has focused on promoting his plan to cut West Virginia’s personal income tax by 50% over the next three years, leaving the state with a 3.25% personal income tax rate by 2026. That plan passed the House, but was immediately declared “dead on arrival” in the Senate, as leadership announced their intention to craft an entirely separate plan.

Still, Justice seemed open to the Senate’s plan after it was announced, noting that he expects further negotiations with senators and delegates in the coming weeks.

“It’s got a lot of really, really good points,” he said. “You’ll never hear from me that the plan put forward is ‘dead on arrival’ or sarcastic things.” —P.R. Lockhart

Amendment to add contraception access to family planning bill voted down

Del. Kayla Young, D-Kanawha, speaks on the Senate floor on Wednesday. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography.

After West Virginia lawmakers passed an abortion ban last September, some health lobbyists were optimistic that the people who supported the law would create legislation that made it easier to raise a family in the state. 

“There’s a group of us who are coming together saying, ‘You support maternal and child health. That was clear that that was part of your rationale for restricting abortion rights in our state,’” said Kat Stoll, policy director for West Virginians for Affordable Healthcare. “Now let’s see if [they] can invest in some of the services that women and children will need.”

While some bills that would help working class and low-income families afford family planning resources have made it through Health and Human Resource committees, the Legislature has refused to bring back a bipartisan pro-families bill from this summer. Senate Bill 3001, proposed a day after the abortion ban was introduced, would have made birth control free, required insurance plans in the state to cover voluntary sterilization procedures and offered an $8,000 tax credit to adopting parents. 

While both legislative bodies approved it last summer, it was never passed. Now, as a replacement, lawmakers are advancing a different version of that bill, one that removes the birth control and voluntary sterilization provisions, reduces the adoption tax credit to $5,000 and creates pathways for the state to fund crisis pregnancy centers. The centers, opposed by medical bodies like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, do not need to comply with medical privacy laws; the bill also mandates that they are anti-abortion.

Margaret Chapman Pomponio, West Virginia Free executive director, said the legislation provides no support for over 1,000 additional families who data suggest would have had abortions but are no longer able to access that care. She added that the measure’s focus on crisis pregnancy centers could also hinder the few legal abortions still allowed under the law. 

“We know that [the abortion ban has] exceptions for the life of the pregnant person, and some narrow exceptions for the health of the pregnant person,” Chapman Pomponio said. “What they’re doing with [the bill] is saying that a hospital could not establish a pregnancy care center. That is outrageous.”

In the bill’s second House floor reading today, Del. Kayla Young, D-Kanawha, proposed amending it to bring back some of the bipartisan language from last year. House Finance Chair Del. Vernon Criss, R-Wood, responded by saying he thought the Senate would no longer be willing to improve contraception and voluntary sterilization access. 

“Last year’s bill and this amendment is just too much to be put in a single bill,” Criss said to the other delegates. 

Ultimately, the amendment failed, with Del. Mickey Petitto, R-Harrison, as the only Republican voting for it. The bill will be up for a final House vote tomorrow; if passed it will head to the Senate. —Allen Siegler

Bill to hire 2,500 teachers aides hits Senate floor

Members of the Senate Finance Committee meet this week. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography.

State senators are advancing the chamber’s signature education bill of the session. SB 274 moved out of the Senate Finance Committee this afternoon as State Superintendent David Roach and the bill’s sponsor, Senate Education Committee Chair Amy Grady, R-Mason, looked on.

The committee substitute that passed is substantially the same as the bill that left Grady’s committee. It outlines a three-pronged approach to bringing West Virginia kindergarten through third grade students up to grade level: training teachers in phonics-based reading instruction like the kind that has proven effective in Mississippi and other areas of the country, shrinking staff-to-student ratios in lower grade classrooms by requiring districts to hire more teachers’ aides who can help in instruction, and requiring the school board to establish testing and intervention policies to catch kids as they fall behind.

The bill was amended only to allow school districts that are unable to find full-time teachers’ aides to meet what would be a mandatory 10-to-1 student-to-staff ratio in K-3 classrooms to hire part-time aides instead. The committee substitute would also allow counties to use their own funds to supplement the state-awarded money for aides to hire interventionists (certified teachers who specialize in bringing kids up to grade level) instead.

Finally, the committee substitute adopted some of the language of another bill requiring the state Board of Education and local agencies to establish guidelines for identifying and helping dyslexic students early.

The bill will next go to the full Senate. If it is passed to the House, it will likely have to be approved by the Finance Committee, as the House Education committee has already passed a similar bill introduced by Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay. It is expected to cost roughly $100 million over the first three years of its implementation. —Ian Karbal

P.R. Lockhart is Mountain State Spotlight's Economic Development Reporter.

Allen Siegler is the public health reporter for Mountain State Spotlight. He can be reached at (681) 317-7571.

Ian Karbal is a Report for America corps member, and the state government watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.