Monday, September 12, 2005

Are the Men in White Coats Getting Ready to Take the Governor Away?

Gary Abernathy sure thinks so. Unless you've been living in a cave for the past week, you probably know the State Capitol is in the midst of a great tempest over whether the Legislature, currently in special session, will have the opportunity to amend the Governor's proposal to reduce the sales tax on groceries from 6% to 5% to provide more relief--maybe even a complete end to the food tax.

As you will see in some of my earlier posts, Governor Manchin has breached the constitutional separation of powers between the executive & legislative branches of government by attempting to proscribe the Legislature from considering any amendment to the food tax bill to reduce the tax further or completely eliminate it. Mind you, this would all be dependent on the will of a majority of the members of both houses. Instead of permitting a general debate on whether to cut the food tax and by how much, the Governor is wanting--with the full cooperation of the Ruling Party's leadership in both houses--to limit the Legislature to an up-or-down vote on reducing the food tax from 6% to 5% with no provision for additional reductions without a future act of the Legislature.

Attempting to take the lead on this very popular proposal, Governor Manchin decided a couple of months ago to support a gradual elimination of the food tax, which generates about $150 million per year for the state. This was such a good idea, he probably thought, why not drag this out in several installments culminating with a full repeal in 2008 just before he stands for reelection?

This would have been a good plan, except the Republicans in the Legislature--seeing the barn door flying open--decided to try to go for a full repeal right away. Apparently having more than enough Democratic votes, the Governor tried lobbying for limiting this year's installment to 1% in the interest of "fiscal responsibility." Having not received a favorable response from his side of the aisle--the remaining populist defenders of the "little guy" are just as adamant as are we on the right--he decided to stretch his authority under Article VII, §7 of the state constitution to convene a special legislative session and severely limit the scope of this proposal so he could try to preserve the apparent battle plan mentioned above.

The Governor has threatened to veto this bill if it exceeds his original proposal. Let him. Only 84% of West Virginians want to ax the food tax. Besides, under Article VII, §14 of the state constitution, vetoes of most bills can be overridden by a simple majority (except in the case of appropriations bills, see Article VI, §51). If we've got the votes to pass a full repeal of the food tax, we will certainly have the votes to stay in session long enough to prevent a post-adjournment veto of this very popular bill that would force the process to begin anew and likely be thwarted by the Democratic leadership that would not only oppose full repeal but would rather not cut the tax at all.

Friday, we learned in the Charleston Gazette that WVU Law Professor Bob Bastress--both of whose politics tilt more than slightly to the left of center--found a 1932 case from the state Supreme Court that would invalidate the Governor's 1% limit. The same day, the Governor appeared on Talkline with Hoppy Kercheval and was not his usual calm, cool, collected self. As Gary said, we had to wonder whether the interview might be interrupted by the men in white coats carrying the Governor away. Later that day, Senate Minority Leader Vic Sprouse filed suit against this restriction and won a preliminary injunction pending the outcome of today's hearing--which is likely to go in our favor and permit real democracy from within the Legislature.