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Lawmakers propose widening 'home rule' plan

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia would allow four more cities or towns to pursue increased governing powers through a successful "home rule" pilot program, under a draft bill discussed by lawmakers Monday.

The measure would also scrap all tax changes enacted so far under the pilot. That appears directed at Huntington, which was sued after it sought to replace a $3-a-week user fee with a 1 percent occupation tax under the program. While the draft bill would allow future attempts to increases, change or redistribute local taxes, at least 55 percent in a resulting municipal vote would have to approve. It would also limit any new fees to within the city or town's boundaries.

Presented to a House-Senate subcommittee, the draft would extend the pilot until 2018 while inviting municipalities with at least 2,000 people to apply to join. Huntington took part in the initial five-year phase along with Wheeling, Bridgeport and Charleston, the state's most populous city. Their mayors and other officials have declared the pilot a success, telling lawmakers it has allowed them to tackle blight, improve services and reduce costs for residents and businesses.

West Virginia operates under a particularly centralized government structure. A recent audit of the pilot program, citing the positive reviews, recommended extending the power-shifting to all cities with at least 2,000 people. The state's Municipal League prefers the small-scale approach reflected in the bill, but wants the draft's tax-voiding language amended, Executive Director Lisa Dooley told the subcommittee.

Dooley cited how home rule allowed Huntington to restructure its business and occupation tax into a 1 percent sales tax, without any blowback. The city's new mayor, Steve Williams, also told lawmakers last month that he plans to work with the City Council to rescind the tax that prompted the lawsuit.

The sales tax should be kept, along with well-received changes by Wheeling and Bridgeport to their business licensing fees, Dooley said.

"All taxes aren't bad," Dooley said, adding that, "Those seem to me to like they're easy to fix."

Delegate Gary Howell suggested that the program admit at least one municipality with a population below 2,000. The Mineral County Republican said one such community in his district, Carpendale, wishes to take part.

GOP lawmakers, particularly in the House, have been the most-vocal foes of the home-rule pilot. A group led by Delegate Kelli Sobonya, a Cabell County Republican whose district included Huntington, sought without success to repeal the program last year. These GOP delegates also have opposed most of the measures that have embraced proposals emerging from the pilot by adopting them statewide. Howell voted against one such bill, addressing business licensing, in 2011.

Republicans approach this year's session with 46 of the House's 100 seats, after picking up 11 in the election. The House-Senate subcommittee lacked enough members present Monday to vote on whether to endorse the draft. It meets one more time before the regular session begins Feb. 13.


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