How many West Virginians wonder how they will pay this month’s electric bill? How many worry that they cannot afford their share of unexpected medical bills, even if they have insurance?
How many of these people are willing to pay an extra half-penny on the dollar in sales taxes to give businesses another tax break?
The West Virginia State Senate’s attempt to provide manufacturers with a tax break died last week when a resolution to place a constitutional amendment on the November ballot failed.
The measure, formally known as Senate Joint Resolution 9, would have phased out personal property taxes on manufacturing equipment, machinery and inventory. It failed when all Democrats present and two Republicans voted against it. The final vote was 18-16, which fell short of the two-thirds majority required for a proposal to submit a constitutional amendment to voters for their approval.
SJR 9’s demise was expected. The day before, Senate Bill 837, which would have phased out the inventory tax and taxes on business inventory, passed on a 17-16 vote. That bill, which also would have phased out the much-despised personal property tax on vehicles, would have needed the constitutional amendment to be approved by voters before it could take effect. It failed to get the votes of two-thirds of senators, indicating SJR 9 would likely fail, which it did.
The problem with SJR 9 and SB 837 was that they would have cut revenues to counties, cities and county school systems by about $300 million a year, as those local levels of government depend heavily on personal property taxes. The sales tax increase and tax increases on cigarettes and other tobacco products and vaping products would have made up about $200 million of that, leaving a $100 million gap for the Legislature to fill from other revenue sources.
There was a question of whether the House of Delegates would have gone along with the tobacco and vaping tax increase, which would have accounted for about $88 million of the $200 million. That would have left an even larger hole for the Legislature to fill.
Since we’re talking about business taxes, let’s bring in a basic business concept — return on investment, or ROI. Were the Legislature and the public to approve a business tax overhaul that results in a $100 million shortfall in tax collections, would there be $100 million or more in benefits?
That’s doubtful. It’s about as doubtful as doubtful gets.
The Democrats and the two Republicans who voted against SJR 9 did the right thing. This investment offered too little return for its cost.
In recent years, the Legislature has given large businesses several tax breaks with the expectation that benefits to the state would exceed the costs to the state treasury. So far, that strategy has failed. There are problems other than taxes that hold down growth in the state economy.
West Virginia’s tax code needs a lot of work. It needs a complete overhaul to make the state competitive as a place to do business and as a place to live. The Legislature’s annual business tax breaks here and there do little to address the real problem.
In the late 1990s, then-Gov. Cecil Underwood appointed a commission to review the tax code and recommend changes. The commission filed a report, but it was promptly forgotten or ignored when Underwood lost his re-election bid in 2000.
It’s time for West Virginia to review its tax structure so it reflects the realities of the 21st century instead of the realities of the Great Depression.