Several phrases came to mind Friday when the photo was released showing a defiant Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, speaker of the West Virginia House of Delegates, arms folded and eyes fixed on the vote tally board in the House chamber. The board was all red, showing the names of the 100 House members who had unanimously voted down a bill backed by Gov. Jim Justice and the state Senate to reduce the state personal income tax and replace part of that revenue with increases in other taxes.
100-0. That’s about as strong a rebuke as the House can send to a sitting governor short of an impeachment vote.
If Justice hadn’t taken it upon himself to insult House members a few hours earlier by goading them into a vote, the result might have turned out differently. The House might still have rejected it, but maybe not by 100-0. Justice said delegates were afraid to vote on the bill. So when the governor dared the House members to vote, they did — and they let him know what they thought of his tactics.
Monday, the governor had not forgotten the rebuke.
“It turned into a grandstanding circus, did it not?” he said in reference to the income tax debate. “We had real wisdom in the Senate and not a lot of wisdom in the House, to tell the truth.”
Maybe Justice thought his margin of victory in the general election five months ago gave him a mandate to come up with any plan that suited his fancy. Surely the Republican supermajority in the Legislature would go along with it. But that’s not how things work. Governors who win in a landslide don’t have free rein.
With his comments Monday, it appears the governor is not in any mood for reconciliation or compromise.
The governor and the state Senate leadership could have avoided this embarrassment if they had let people into the Capitol during the session. They would have heard directly from the public that many people would rather pay a lower sales tax along with an income tax than see an income reduction paired with an increase in the sales tax.
Under the ruse of COVID-19 precautions, the governor and legislators isolated and insulated themselves from public scrutiny. People lost direct contact with their elected representatives. State officials who let children back in school and social gadflys back in bars were too essential to risk contact with the rest of us.
To further show the governor just doesn’t understand the need for public access, his news conference on Monday to talk about COVID-19 and other matters was another one conducted virtually, where he allowed no one in the room and allowed no followup questions.
When asked Monday about when the Capitol would be open to the public again, Justice denied that it was closed. It’s open for official business, but not for tour groups, he said. He won’t accept that some individuals want to interact with state officials directly.
Moving forward, Justice said last week he will take his case for his income tax plan directly to voters. That assumes he plans to visit several parts of the state and talk to real people — not politicians and lobbyists who seek his favor — about how his plan is better for them than the status quo. If he has specially picked audiences to applaud his every sentence, then the road show will be a sham. He needs to hear from people who would be asked to pay more in sales taxes so higher- income people would get a break.
To sum it all up, there is little or no public support for the governor’s plan. If he wants to advance it, he will need to give up his hard-charging ways, seek consensus and, most important of all, public input. Insults and obstinance won’t work.