Every year I get very excited about the state legislative session – which started a little later this year on February 10. We all have our lists of great bills we hope to move through the legislative process. This is democracy in action! And of course with COVID-19 it is going to take the virtue of patience with virtual!
To prepare for the 2021 session, during 2020 West Virginians for Affordable Health Care came together with a group of other organizations that care about affordable, quality health care for all West Virginians to define our collective legislative goals. And then the draft goals were taken on the road – ok on the internet highway - to virtual meetings around the state to get more input from community advocates, providers and other leaders. The end product - the West Virginia Health Agenda 2021 - is an ambitious set of 10 legislative goals. Please take a look. And we will be talking more about the 10 legislative goals in future blogs.
Now some of these goals can and should pass this year – like providing low-income moms with Medicaid coverage for 12 months after their baby is born rather than just two months. Others may take a few years to move but this is the year to start the momentum through public and legislator education. As advocates, we know how to run legislative marathons over several years to get our bills to the finish line.
But there are a few tough hills that face us in the very first few miles. Some hurdles must be jumped. And the biggest one is that leadership in the state legislature is proposing a dramatic, radical change in how we raise revenue to fund every part of state government – from parks to road maintenance to education to health care programs.
My mom used to say, “nothing is sure but taxes and death.” We all pay a share of taxes; the challenge is to make them as fair as possible to everyone. The richest pay more and the low-income working guy/gal pays less. This is basic tax policy.
Unfortunately, the tax proposal being discussed by legislative leaders will do just the opposite. It will shift more taxes on to low-income, harding-working West Virginia families just to help cut taxes for the rich.
The proposal will scrap personal income taxes in the state. At first blush, this idea might sound attractive. But there are “no free lunches” – in this case no free parks, no free roads, no free teachers, no free public health services (think COVID vaccine distribution), no free health care.
If West Virginia scraps our personal income tax, we cut 43 percent of all the revenue that pays for state government functions. That is just not going to work. Just like you and I can’t pay all our bills if we suddenly lose half of our paycheck. So new taxes must be put into place to replace at least part of this revenue and we have to cut programs. According to an email from House Majority Whip Paul Espinosa (R - Jefferson, 66), here’s some of the ideas for what should be coupled with the scrapping of the personal income tax:
- increase the sales tax to at least 8% and potentially higher
- reinstate the food tax
- 5-10 percent across the board cut to all government functions including public education, higher education, health and human services provided by the state’s Department of Health and Human Resources.
Governor Justice recently has been talking about phasing out the personal income tax over time. Even this approach will require an increase in the sales tax and other taxes, as well as cuts to state spending on vital programs. And remember that our state has been freezing state spending for several years now. For a program like Medicaid, a freeze in the budget is like a cut to the program. The state does not have the power to stop medical cost inflation that is a nationwide trend. The same medical services cost more, yet there is no more money to keep up with the rising prices.
Governor Justice tries to make his variation on this bad idea somehow sound more reasonable. Don’t be fooled. If you eliminate revenue from the personal income tax in one year or over a couple years, the result is the same. The sales tax gets increased, and programs and services shrink.
Not sounding so good? Poor families end up spending more for the necessities they must buy and they also see cuts to the health and support programs they need to make ends meet and stay healthy.
And all of our ambitions to make health care more affordable for West Virginians could be turned into just dreams. If we do not get up this hill - stop this proposal to scrap the personal income tax – the revenue challenge will block us from ever running forward to make our state a better home for hard-working families.
What can you do: Contact your Delegate and Senator in the state legislature and let them know you oppose shifting taxes on to lower-income families and cutting vital services that like public education and Medicaid. You can use this online tool to help you.