CHARLESTON — Wearied by the thought of another study, Sen. Russ Weeks hopes the Manchin administration is serious about overhauling West Virginia’s tax structure this summer.

Right now, he says, the state imposes the deepest and most extensive burden on its citizenry anywhere in America.

So bad, he says, that West Virginia is akin to a socialist republic in the gone and largely unlamented era of the old Soviet Union.

Weeks bases that description on a conversation with Dr. Russell Sobel, professor of economics at West Virginia University, who conducted research on the state of the state’s economy.

“When he did this study and saw just how our free market economy in West Virginia was held down, he got to thinking how West Virginia stood with the rest of the world,” Weeks, R-Raleigh, reflected.

“He compared us with some of the ex-Soviet bloc countries during the Cold War. We even fell behind some of them. He said Estonia has a much better economy for businesses than West Virginia does.”

Until Gov. Joe Manchin decides when and where he wants to go on tax reform this year, the Legislature has ordered another year-long study on the system.

That study focused last year on Weeks’ annual effort to gain passage of the Fair Tax Act, a reform package that had its genesis in the administration of former Gov. Cecil Underwood, with Rob Capehart as its principal author.

“I’ve had the Fair Tax Act introduced in the Senate, and nothing becomes of it,” Weeks complained.

“It just lies in committee and dies. They won’t bring it up. West Virginia is not a representative republic. We are an oligarchy. An oligarchy is a type of government in which a small handful of people control everything. When that happens, the will of the people be damned.”

Weeks has approached Manchin twice about moving the Fair Tax Act, but the governor prefers a special session — a tack the senator feels will narrow the scope and limit debate, just as it did last summer when lawmakers were allowed to consider only a 1 percent cut in the food tax.

“The Democrats’ idea for tax reform, their answer to 14 Republican bills on the table for tax reform, was to tax cats,” he said.

“That was put forth by the (House) leadership. After it came out, they caught so much flak about it, they just let it die. They’re just not serious about tax reform and we’ve proved that during this session by moving to discharge committees on different tax reform bills and the Democrats all vote against it.”

Weeks defends the Fair Tax Act as one that is revenue neutral and “creates a business-friendly environment.”

Among its provisions is a change in the franchise tax.

“It’s going to spread the tax out evenly,” the senator said.

“Those who are not paying very much in taxes are going to be paying more and those who are paying a whole lot more than others are going to be paying less.”

Just who would fork over more tax dollars?

“Law firms,” Weeks said. “That is where I get the biggest opposition.”

He used Phillips Machine Service of Beckley to illustrate what he perceives as a sphere of disparity in taxes.

“Phillips Machine is a capital intensive industry,” he said. “There’s a lot of money that goes into that industry because they have high-tech people, highly trained people, and they have high-tech equipment. All that generates their bottom line.

“Now, a law firm has a copier, telephone, computer system — all this to generate its bottom line. Phillips Machine pays 9 to 12 percent in the business franchise tax. The law firm pays one half of 1 percent.”

By ending such disparity, Weeks says, the state won’t lose any revenues.

“Why should one group get a preference over another group here in the state to do business?” he asked. “Look who runs Charleston (the Legislature). Lawyers.”

Weeks says the proposal would also quit penalizing businesses on personal property taxes assessed for equipment and expansion.

Another feature would drop the annual tax motorists pay at the courthouse on personal vehicles.

“We’ll take about 112,000 people off the tax rolls that are below the federal poverty level,” he said.

“We’re trying to create an environment in the state where businesses can expand, and by doing that, it’s going to make West Virginia more business-friendly to businesses that are out of state. They will be interested in locating here.”

But if Manchin decides against taking up the Weeks plan on tax reform this summer, that leaves the senator with nothing more to show for his efforts than another year-long study in the monthly interims sessions.

Weeks has little faith in that process.

“I don’t know of anything in this state that we haven’t studied,” he said.

“Last year, we even studied restocking bass in the Ohio River. It doesn’t take rocket science to figure out we have a problem here.”

— E-mail:

mannix@register-herald.com

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