Thoughts from the Day After the Election
Republicans Now Have a Super Supermajority in West Virginia
You have likely heard the news that West Virginia has increased its existing Republican supermajority in the House and Senate. On Tuesday, the majority increased from 78 to 88 delegates in the House (out of 100) and from 23 to 30 senators (out of 34) in the Senate. Fully 88 percent of the West Virginia Legislature now comprises Republicans. This is shocking news, not only in scope, but in pace. As a reminder, West Virginia was still primarily a Democrat state within the last decade. This, of course, raises one very important question.
West Virginian Republicans Have Brought Welcome Change But Have a Long Way To Go
Since Republicans began to dominate state politics in 2014, the state has made tremendous – monumental – strides in reforming policies that were responsible for West Virginia’s reputation as a backwater. Legal reforms, regulatory reforms, right-to-work, and, most recently, education reforms that are the envy of nearly every other state in the union are part of this package. Yet, there is still much work left to do and an unclear path on how to accomplish the work.
West Virginia Needs Tax Reform
The most obvious among these policies is transformative tax reform. Over the last few years, Republicans have bandied about ideas from the dramatic and rapid to the cautious and steady. Some plans have focused on the income tax and sales tax, while others have pledged to eliminate the business inventory tax. The Governor has put forth a plan, the Senate has put forth a plan, and the House has put forth a plan.
There are a couple of ways to look at this. But, first, it should be acknowledged that it’s a wonderful thing that Republicans are arguing about the best way to reform the tax code instead of arguing about how to increase the size of government. This is a welcome change from the state’s history. However, it is also a sign that the state needs a unifying theory on reforming taxes, and, frankly, its brand of conservatism, generally. In one sense, this is reasonable and expected as Republicans are still in the very early stages of being the state’s dominant political party. The supermajority is still new. However, they now must reckon with discovering their guiding political philosophy.
The Supermajority Needs to Unify And Make Serious Changes
It is an undeniable fact that amazing progress has been made. It is also amazing that West Virginia has not made more progress in transforming the state’s policy environment. For example, the state still seems beholden to the technocratic, central planning philosophy that was dominant in the 1960s and 70s. Growth-inhibiting policies like certificate-of-need (CON) laws for its healthcare system are still pervasive. CON laws have no place in a free-market environment. Yet their repeals have been painstakingly absent, though some valiant attempts have been made.
Occupational licensing, the elimination of boards and commissions (West Virginia has more boards and commissions than its much larger and more economically diverse neighbors, Ohio and Pennsylvania), and reforming the Leviathan that is the Department of Health and Human Resources, all remain conspicuously absent from the Republican Party’s trophy case.
To be clear, these reforms are complex, complicated, come with very strong opposition from well-entrenched special interests, and require time. That is where a coherent philosophy of conservatism comes in to serve as a policy Polaris.
What Will the Future of Conservatism Look Like in West Virginia?
When one knows where one is going, it is easier to get there.
It is reasonable to expect Republican supermajorities for the near and not-so near future. While Republican victories may have seemed fleeting or imperiled in their earlier days, it is simply no longer the case. West Virginia may well be Republican for the next two or three generations. There is time to work out which flavor of conservatism West Virginia’s GOP will resemble and which policies to pursue. Subsidies or broad-based tax reform? Carve-outs or deregulation? Burdensome licensing regulation or all entrepreneurs welcome? Innovators or entrenched interests? These choices are not easy, but there is a right answer. And a wrong one.
A Caution to Conservatives in West Virginia
While social conservatism is valuable and for many, conservatism’s summum bonum, it is incumbent on this supermajority to lay the conservative policy infrastructure required to catalyze the type of economic growth that will make it easier for West Virginians to survive and emerge from the paycheck-to-paycheck daily grind that has shaped much of the state’s modern history. The kind of grind that makes one choose between paying this bill or that bill versus saving for college or taking the dog to the veterinarian. It is this “living on the razor’s edge” that I surmise has caused much caution in some of the reform efforts here, but, eventually, bold reforms will be required.
There is no doubt that the state has a better policy infrastructure today than a mere decade ago. However, there is a risk that West Virginia’s conservatism never fully forms into anything resembling free markets or pro-innovation. The state’s leaders must be cognizant of this or risk undermining the many victories for which they should be proud.
West Virginia’s future depends on it.
Garrett Ballengee is the Executive Director of the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy.