The tally after senators voted to advance a tax cut plan. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography

The House of Delegates passed a religious freedom bill today that opponents say could be used to legalize discrimination. But first, the long-promised tax cut plan is here. 

GOP compromises on tax cut plan

After weeks of little public action on taxes, the Legislature’s newly announced tax compromise is now barreling forward as the end of the session approaches. 

The deal cleared a major hurdle on Saturday as the Senate, after suspending constitutional rules, introduced and passed a plan that would cut West Virginia’s personal income tax and create a number of refundable tax credits. 

The plan now goes back to the House where leadership said on Monday that they would likely take it up next week.

Critics of the proposal say the state’s budget surplus, on which the cuts are based, is artificial and temporary, largely driven by one-time federal pandemic relief funds, higher severance taxes and intentionally low revenue projections.

The bill, which was discussed briefly on the Senate floor after its rapid introduction and passage out of a Finance Committee meeting lasting just four minutes, would introduce an initial 21.25% reduction in the personal income tax that is retroactive to the start of this year. The bill also creates a trigger that allows for further income tax reductions but not more than 10% in a single year. 

The bill also would give full refunds through tax credits for some property taxes paid by severely disabled veterans and annual vehicle taxes paid to counties. The bill also refunds 50% of personal property taxes paid by businesses with a value of $1 million or less. 

Legislators framed the bill, which Gov. Jim Justice said is estimated to return $750 million to taxpayers, as a compromise between groups that have been sparring over the best approach to tax reform for the past several months.

In its current form, the compromise more closely resembles the Senate’s tax plan than what the governor had proposed at the beginning of the session. 

But Justice said the bill is a “win-win for all West Virginians.” 

“I am extremely happy that after weeks of negotiations with all parties we’ve been able to reach a deal with the House and Senate that will be the largest tax cut in West Virginia history,” he said. 

But the bill, and the broader tax policy decisions that have informed it, have been criticized by some policy groups in the state, who argue that lawmakers are pursuing tax cuts at the cost of increasing services. Critics have also challenged if the rapid push for tax cuts are the best use of West Virginia’s current budget surplus, particularly given that the surplus is largely the result of one-time federal assistance, unexpected and likely temporary increases in severance tax collections, and intentionally low revenue projections made by the state.

“Overall this legislation is certain to harm low- and middle-income families by reducing the state’s ability to invest in current programs and services or to make new needed investments,” Kelly Allen, executive director for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, wrote in a blog post on Saturday.  –P.R. Lockhart

Religious freedom passes House over vocal opposition

Del. Todd Kirby, R-Raleigh, speaks on the House floor on Monday. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography.

Delegates voted on Monday to pass a bill that would allow West Virginians to sue over state or local laws that create a substantial burden on one’s ability to practice their religion. The bill passed 86-12 and now goes to the Senate.

HB 3042 is part of an onslaught of legislation that would roll back rights and protections for LGBTQ people and opponents of the bill have said it could be used to justify discrimination.

Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, proposed amendments to exempt non-discrimination laws and require posted signs if a person plans to deny a public service or accommodation based on religious beliefs. Both were voted down.

“Nobody has asked for this,” he said of the bill. “What are we trying to do here? And the only logical explanation I can find is we’re trying to provide legal cover for those who would discriminate against those who they disapprove of.”

Supporters of the bill said it simply creates a legal test for the courts to decide whether a law violates religious freedoms and said this is already happening

Del. Todd Kirby, R-Raleigh, one of the bill’s sponsors, said nurses, pharmacists, churches and teachers are having their rights and religious beliefs infringed upon. 

“Teachers throughout this nation, throughout this state and in some municipalities are being forced to push the left’s agenda, the government’s agenda, within the war on traditional families with such things as promoting transgenderism, homosexuality in our classrooms,” Kirby said. 

-Duncan Slade

Go deeper: Lawmakers keep pushing bills to curtail LGBTQ rights. West Virginians keep saying it’s a bad idea

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

Duncan Slade is Mountain State Spotlight's Deputy Managing Editor