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Tom Miller: Legislature passes several tax bills to increase revenue

Apr. 21, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

Some of the bills that didn't pass at the 60-day regular legislative session that ended more than a week ago deserved to die. And there were some significant ones that did pass with little or no fanfare.

First of all, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin held true to his promise in the State of the State speech on opening day that he wasn't going to raise taxes on individuals. And he didn't -- at least not on individuals. But there were four bills approved that will increase state tax revenues -- just not on the general public.

First is HB2754, which will require online retailers to pay this state's consumer sales tax if "they or a subsidiary have a physical presence in the state." The poster child for this tax hike is Amazon.com, which has a customer service center in Huntington. Number crunchers in the State Tax and Revenue Department provided a fiscal note to legislators that predicted this would increase annual state sales tax revenues by $7 million to $10 million. The governor already has this increased revenue included in his 2013-2014 state budget plan that kicks in July 1.

Lawmakers also passed HB2514, introduced by House Speaker Richard Thompson, D-Wayne, and Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, at the request of the governor. It will reduce the total amount of tax credits under the Film Industry Investment Act from $10 million to $5 million annually.

This tax credit was created in 2007 and applies to taxes incurred that are based on the production of qualified film projects in the state. It allows non-refundable tax credits that could be applied against -- in the following order -- business franchise, corporate net income tax or personal income tax liability. The existing law has resulted in a total of $7.6 million tax credits since it started six years ago.

From the Senate side, SB454, which will tax collections on "alternative fuels " under the state's Motor Fuel Excise Tax beginning on Jan. 1, 2014, completed action when the House of Delegates gave this measure final approval the next-to-last day of the regular session.

Alternative fuels are defined as "products commonly known as butane, propane, compressed natural gas, liquefied natural gas, liquefied petroleum gas, natural gas hydrocarbons and derivatives, among others, but does not include electricity." The new law provides that the increased revenues will be maintained in the State Road Fund "in future years as the growth in alternative fuel vehicles become more significant within the state."

Finally, there is SB63, which would remove the present tax exemption for all natural gas and oil produced from any well which has not produced marketable quantities of natural gas or oil for five consecutive years. It also terminates the exemption for wells placed back into production on or after July 1, 2013.

So the idea that there were no new tax increases approved at the now-completed regular 2013 legislative session in West Virginia is not correct even though there were, indeed, no new taxes on the general voting public.

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With all the "horse trading" that occurred during the regular 60-day session, it was probably inevitable that there would be efforts to revive a pair of bills that died at the end of the regular session at midnight April 13.

House Speaker Richard Thompson, D-Wayne, and many members of the House of Delegates wanted to equalize the salaries for all county magistrates in the state (HB2434). Currently, magistrates who serve 8,400 or less people make $51,125 a year and the magistrates that serve more people are paid $57,500.

The Senate, meanwhile, wanted to allow a sales tax increment financing district that is expected to provide $96 million of development near Morgantown, including a new I-79 exit and a $16 million ball park for West Virginia University and a New York-Penn League minor league baseball team (SB125).

So the leading advocates of the two bills that didn't pass during the 60-day session -- Speaker Thompson and Sen. Robert Beach, D-Monongalia -- pleaded with the governor to call a special session to revive these two bills. And after meeting with legislative leaders last week, the governor did exactly that.

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One new law that didn't get a lot of attention when it was passed will make it easier for state residents to register to vote. And a second bill that passed will guarantee a more accurate list of those eligible to cast ballots was also passed. Both were requested by Secretary of State Natalie Tennant.

State residents will be able to register online to vote if they already have a digital signature on file with a state agency. For instance, if a person has this kind of signature on file with the Division of Motor Vehicles, county clerks will be able to digitally transfer that signature from a driver's license application to a voter registration form. Tennant said eventually potential voters will be able to use other identification such as Social Security numbers to allow online registration for people without a signature on file.

Tom Miller is a retired state government reporter for The Herald-Dispatch. He is a regular contributor to The Herald-Dispatch opinion page.

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