CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Leaders from both parties in the West Virginia Senate on Tuesday credited Republican Gov. Jim Justice for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic but some cautioned that more can be done, including helping small businesses.
Newly minted Senate President Craig Blair, Democratic Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin and other senators participated in an online forum with the media as part of the West Virginia Legislative Lookahead. The annual event typically is held in person but was moved online this session because of the pandemic.
“I think the governor has done a reasonable job during the pandemic," said Blair, a Berkeley County Republican. "There's been some things I didn't like; there's been some things I actually did like. When I've had complaints from constituents and I voiced them to the governor's office, or ideas on how to do it better, that normally they reacted within 24 hours and addressed those issues."
West Virginia received more than $1.2 billion for coronavirus-related expenses through the federal relief bill last spring.
The state spent $587 million of that on unemployment benefits through the end of December and an additional $265 million was allocated to counties and municipalities, according to the state auditor's office.
An additional $150 million was tabbed for reimbursement of state expenses, $50 million went to the National Guard for virus testing and personal protection equipment, and $40 million was allocated to a small business grant program.
Baldwin, a Greenbrier County Democrat, agreed that Justice has “done a good job” with the pandemic response. But he said Republican lawmakers did not pursue Democrats’ calls for a special legislative session last year to have a role in doling out of those federal funds.
Baldwin said measures implemented by the state to help struggling small businesses were helpful, “but it was significantly smaller than we had envisioned and asked for and, frankly, what we thought the businesses needed to be able to stay afloat.”
This year's legislative session starts Feb. 10. Among the leading issues already mentioned are addressing potential cuts in the state personal income tax to attract businesses and population growth to the state. West Virginia has lost tens of thousands of residents over the past decade.
The tax proposal would be a heavy lift for the state.
The personal income tax represents 43%, or $1.97 billion, of the state budget. Justice and Blair have been vocal about eliminating the tax. But how to replace the lost funding, including potentially increasing the state sales tax, remains a mystery.
In 2017, lawmakers could not push through a proposal that would have overhauled the tax structure by raising sales taxes while cutting income taxes. Last year Democrats rejected a plan to change the state Constitution and allow tax cuts on manufacturers and personal vehicles while raising sales taxes and taxes on tobacco products.
During the upcoming 60-day session, lawmakers said the Senate must be cautious to avoid a virus outbreak. While the 34-member Senate will be spread out in the chamber, Blair is leaving open the possibility of senators conducting committee meetings from their offices.
Blair said it would be possible to interrupt the session temporarily if an outbreak occurs.
“We want the flexibility to have a productive session,” he said.