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HOPEFULS LOOK TO SHIFT TAX BURDEN

This is the latest in an ongoing series of articles examining the

 

issues, records and platforms of West Virginia's candidates for governor.

 

Today's installment focuses on taxes.

 

 

Twenty years ago, a group of volunteers helped complete a landmark

 

  • tudy of land ownership and property taxes in Appalachia.
  •  

     

    They found, among other things, that large landowners shoulder a

     

  • maller part of the tax burden than they should. To make up
  •  

    for it, homeowners and families pay more than they should, the study

     

    found.

     

     

    This year, two of those volunteers from the Appalachian Land Ownership

     

    Task Force are running for governor of West Virginia.

     

     

    Both Democratic Rep. Bob Wise and third-party candidate Denise Giardina

     

  • ay that some large landowners still aren't paying their fair share of
  •  

    taxes, although Giardina says it much more often and much more loudly than

     

    Wise.

     

     

    Incumbent Gov. Cecil Underwood's "Agenda For Fair Taxation" doesn't

     

    include such a proposal for large landholders, such as coal companies.

     

    Underwood wants to eliminate several current taxes on businesses,

     

    including the corporate income tax and the property tax on

     

    machinery and equipment, and replace them with a single business

     

    tax of 2 percent.

     

     

    Although the state Tax Department recently reappraised coal

     

    reserves, the total appraised value of the state's coal reserves remained

     

    basically the same. But some counties have seen their coal reserves

     

    devalued, while their property taxes continue to rise.

     

     

    For example, Kanawha County's coal reserves were appraised at $91

     

    million in 1996, but the value dropped to $55 million in 2000. Over the

     

  • ame period, the appraised value of the average Kanawha County house rose
  •  

    by nearly $40,000, from $97,000 to $136,500.

     

     

    "They [land values] ought to be re-evaluated, just out of fairness,"

     

    Wise said last week. "We've gone through a couple of reappraisals, but

     

    there's still a lot of work that needs to be done. We can do that with an

     

    aggressive Tax Department."

     

     

    Wise, a longtime congressman, hasn't made property taxes a main theme

     

    in his campaign, though. Giardina, of the newly formed Mountain Party,

     

    has.

     

     

    "Despite subsequent reappraisals, this situation has hardly improved,"

     

  • he says on her campaign Web site. "The state Tax Department has
  •  

    been challenged on numerous occasions to come up with fair appraisals, but

     

    every administration, Democratic and Republican, has refused to make

     

    absentee owners pay their fair share of property tax."

     

     

    She also favors an "excess acreage" tax on landowners who

     

    control more than 10,000 acres in West Virginia.

     

     

    Underwood, the Republican candidate, did not return a phone call

     

  • eeking comment for this story. On his questionnaire from Project Vote
  •  

    Smart, a national voter education group, he says he would leave taxes on

     

    mineral reserves the way they are.

     

     

    Another gubernatorial candidate, Libertarian Bob Myers, would do away

     

    with any tax on coal reserves and property, according to the survey

     

    he filled out for Project Vote Smart.

     

     

    That's not surprising because Libertarians generally favor hands-off

     

    government in every way possible. If it's a tax, chances are Myers

     

    wants to cut it or get rid of it. He singles out the food tax on

     

    his campaign Web site: "There is nothing desirable about living in a state

     

    that taxes food."

     

     

    Wise, Underwood and Giardina have all said they'd like to get rid of

     

    the 6 percent food tax as well. Underwood says he'll replace it

     

    with a general excise tax. Wise says he'd like to cut the food

     

    tax, but can't because of the financial hole such a move would

     

    leave in the state's budget.

     

     

    "When we get to the point where we can cut taxes, the food tax

     

    ought to be the first one we cut," he said. "But I can't look people in

     

    the eye and say I'm going to cut this tax next year, because we're

     

    just not in a position to do it."

     

     

    Underwood's "Fair Taxation" plan would also exempt families below the

     

    federal poverty level from paying any income tax.

     

     

    He wants to offer tax relief to West Virginia residents in other

     

    ways, including repealing the personal property tax on every car

     

    and truck in the state. The tax may be the most unpopular in the

     

  • tate, and Underwood's critics accused him of using the tax to
  •  

    pander to voters.

     

     

    "For the working poor to get up and go to work, they have to have a

     

    car," Robin Capehart, Underwood's former tax commissioner and the

     

    chairman of his Fair Taxation Commission, said when the proposal was

     

    unveiled. "Having a tax on that car is extremely regressive."

     

     

    Wise suggested tying residents' personal property tax to their

     

    income, so if their property took a sudden jump in value, they wouldn't be

     

    left with a huge tax bill they couldn't pay.

     

     

    Eliminating the personal property tax, as Underwood wants to do,

     

    would also mean that businesses wouldn't pay taxes on their equipment,

     

    machinery and inventory. Wise said that's not very fair taxation.

     

     

    "It seems to shift some of the tax burden from

     

    traditional industry to the kind of businesses we should be trying to

     

    develop, particularly high-technology businesses," he said. "I don't think

     

    taking a significant burden off the coal industry and putting it

     

  • omewhere else is the way to go."
  •  

     

    This year, the Legislature approved a bill that would have required

     

    business owners to prove they had paid their property taxes before they

     

    could renew their business licenses, in much the same way that drivers

     

    have to produce their property tax receipt to register their car

     

    each year. The West Virginia Association of Counties says that nearly

     

    4,000 businesses in 21 counties owe $3.5 million in back property taxes.

     

     

    Underwood vetoed the bill, saying the proposal would be hard to manage.

     

    Also, the state Chamber of Commerce said the bill was anti-business.

     

     

    Both Wise and Underwood have room in their economic plans for small

     

    businesses. Underwood's plan calls for businesses that bring in less than

     

    $100,000 a year to be exempt from his proposed single business tax.

     

     

     

     

    Wise suggests allowing small businesses to avoid paying taxes for their

     

    first two years. "They're not going to pay much anyhow for the first

     

    couple of years," he said.

     

     

    It's questionable whether Underwood's tax plan will ever gain

     

    enough support from the Legislature to get off the ground. Last year, the

     

    governor wanted to call a special session to enact his tax changes,

     

    but that never happened.

     

     

    This year, legislators agreed to send out 10,000 alternative tax

     

    returns to state businesses, to see how they would fare under Underwood's

     

    proposed tax reform. "It's a step in the right direction,"

     

    Underwood said during this year's session.

     

     

    To contact staff writer Greg Moore, use e-mail or call 348-1211.

     

     


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