House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, speaks during a roundtable discussion on taxes hosted by Gov. Jim Justice earlier this month.

Medically-misleading information about abortion medication could make its way into doctors’ offices under a bill that senators considered today. Also, lawmakers are trying to put additional oversight in place for future blockbuster economic development deals.

But first, largely private discussions between the governor and lawmakers about tax cuts were thrust into the spotlight this week.

Tax cut talks continue as end of session grow close

This story has been updated to reflect that senators took action on the House tax bill on Thursday afternoon.

Despite being a big item on Republicans’ legislative agenda this session, recent discussions of tax reform at the Capitol have largely been happening in private, as legislators work to figure out a deal. But the debate was thrust into the public this week in the House of Delegates, with lawmakers raising questions about a proposal that received limited scrutiny after being introduced and subsequently passed out of the Senate in a matter of hours earlier this month. 

According to a fiscal note, the Senate’s tax plan is estimated to cost more than $740 million, $140 million more than the Senate said it would. Senate leadership has argued that its plan, which would reduce the personal income tax by 15%, with additional cuts after the state hits certain sales tax collection triggers, is a sustainable way to return money to taxpayers. The plan also includes several tax rebates, including a rebate on vehicle taxes as well as a 50% rebate on equipment and inventory taxes paid by small businesses.

It is those latter rebates that have raised concerns and confusion recently, with lawmakers noting that the rebates effectively allow the Legislature to enact the Amendment 2 property tax proposal, despite voters overwhelmingly rejecting that amendment last fall. 

“Basically, it would be to fund what was in Amendment 2 that was on the ballot and that the governor opposed,” said Del. Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha. “The bill ran in six hours. I’ve never seen that in my life, six hours from introduction to sending it to the House with this rule suspension. It came very fast. It’s also got some problems in the writing of the bill.”

Legislators who supported Amendment 2 have also expressed concern. 

Del. Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, said he’s upset the amendment wasn’t successful. “However, it didn’t pass,” he said. “We’ve got two and a half weeks to provide relief to West Virginians. We’ve got two and a half weeks to see to it that they pay less tax.”

The new discord arrives as Gov. Jim Justice, the state Senate, and the House all seek to find a compromise on tax reform as the end of the session rapidly approaches. Justice has spent most of the past few weeks promoting his own tax plan, which would cut the state’s personal income tax by 50% over the next three years, reducing state tax collections by $1.4 billion by 2026. That proposal was passed by the House in January, but has since been ignored by the Senate until today, when the Finance Committee sent it to the floor for a first reading, without recommendation.

And as state lawmakers continue to discuss the proposals, federal legislators and advocacy groups are cautioning them to be careful with permanent tax cuts, particularly as the state touts a surplus influenced by one-time federal money and temporary increases in severance tax collections. “I don’t want the state to not have the knowledge of exactly what has come in, and as they make these decisions be very concerned about this because it will not last,” U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin told MetroNews’ Talkline on Wednesday. “You’ll go back to normal times eventually.” —P.R. Lockhart

Those seeking abortion in WV could get medically-misleading info under proposed bill

Members of the Senate Health Committee meet on Thursday. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography.

Dr. David Jude had a busy Thursday afternoon. Between seeing patients, as he has in West Virginia for 29 years, the Cabell County-based OB-GYN logged onto Zoom to testify before the Senate House and Human Resources Committee about Senate Bill 552.

The bill would change how doctors like Jude interact with West Virginians seeking one of the state’s few permissible abortions. While state code already forces them to mention that some studies suggest medication can reverse the effects of abortion pills, the measure would remove important contextual information from the script — that the Food and Drug Administration has not approved that medication. In addition, it also forces doctors to refer patients who carry fetuses with medical problems to an anti-abortion, state-sponsored website.

Jude told the committee he opposes the bill for multiple reasons. Most notably, he said the legislation would force him to mislead patients.

“For a practicing OB-GYN, it seems like we’re being asked, we’re being required by law to provide information that is not medically accurate,” he said. Jude also noted that to his knowledge, no physician in the state prescribes abortion pills in wake of September’s ban.

Despite his testimony, lawmakers passed a committee substitute unanimously, with no amendments and no discussion. While he voted for the bill, Senate Health and Human Resources Chair Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, said in an interview afterwards that he doesn’t want to make legal abortions harder to access. He pointed to his abstention in last year’s abortion ban as proof.

“I think [552] ended up being a clean-up bill,” he said, citing changes the bill makes in identifying medical professionals. “Code, technical clean-up.”

Others in attendance, however, felt differently about the implications. Alisa Clements, the public affairs director for South Atlantic Planned Parenthood, believes an anti-abortion state-run website and forcing OB-GYNs to read medically-misleading statements would further deter West Virginians from seeking legal abortions.

“It seems like this is just another unnecessary attack on care that is already restricted by this body,” she said.  —Allen Siegler

Additional oversight proposed for big economic development deals

Gov. Jim Justice and Secretary of Economic Development Mitch Carmichael during an economic development announcement in December. Photo courtesy the Governor’s Office.

Last week, lawmakers fought over funding a deal made by the Department of Economic Development to bring a battery plant to Weirton. Earlier this week, the Senate quietly passed a bill to reign in the department’s dealmaking ability.

SB 523 would require legislative approval for any spending on high impact development projects from the department’s project fund topping $300 million annually. 

For reference, the Form Energy deal has a price tag of roughly $290 million for the state. The deal the department made last year with the steel company Nucor to bring a $2.7 billion mill to Mason County resulted in tax credits over $1 billion.

“It still gives them a lot of leeway to go out and just do whatever they need to do to bring businesses in,” said Sen. Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, the bill’s co-sponsor. “But once you get to $300 million — that’s approaching half a billion — it’s nice to have oversight.”

The bill was taken up by the Senate Finance Committee two days after its chair, Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, voted against funding the Form Energy deal. The measure to reign in the powers of the department passed the Senate unanimously with no debate either in committee or on the floor. It will have to pass the House of Delegates to become law. — 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.