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Rushing will ruin reform

February 24, 1999

Considering how touchy West Virginians are about taxes in general, the suggestion that the state legislature try to rush the process of tax reform doesn't make much sense to us. We share lawmakers' frustration at the slow pace of progress, but in this case, haste would certainly trash a process that's been under way for the past two years.

Gov. Cecil Underwood began the study in 1997 by appointing a Commission on Tax Fairness that presented its proposals to a special joint House and Senate panel for the first time this past Monday. The two groups will continue meeting for the final three weeks of the current legislative session, which ends on March 13.

Underwood's plan was to have that joint committee meet all summer long, then hold a special session in the fall to vote on the proposals. But that timetable isn't fast enough to suit Senate Finance Chairman Oshel Craigo, who says that lawmakers could take care of the matter by extending the current session for just one week.

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Craigo argues that lawmakers are always in town for a week after the session ends while a conference committee finishes up the budget. Making use of that wasted time could preclude the need for a special session later, he said.

What Craigo doesn't say (and may not realize) is that even though the governor's commission has spent two years on tax reform, the public is only now becoming acquainted with the details. Passage of the package will require citizens to vote on two constitutional amendments, and if citizens aren't properly educated, there's a good chance they'll vote them down.

This is a complicated package that would replace consumer sales and use taxes with an excise tax, eliminate personal property taxes and clarify that the legislature, and not the courts, has the final authority over education spending.

Yes, it would be nice if the job of educating citizens about this package could be done in a week, just as it would be nice if getting a college degree were as simple as snapping one's fingers. There's no shortcut to either goal and lawmakers who are dedicated to doing things right should reject any plan to bypass a special session on tax reform.

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