What is West Virginia’s Economic Outlook?

The Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University released their annual Economic Outlook Report for the state earlier this month. According to the report’s forecast, West Virginia is expected to experience modest job growth, with employment forecasted to grow at an average rate of 0.7 percent per year for the next five years.  That’s below the projected national average of 0.9 percent per year, and as the report notes, would result in West Virginia not reaching it’s 2012 level of employment until 2021.

BBER’s employment growth forecast of 0.7 percent is one of the lower forecasts for the state that they have made in recent years. This may be a reflection that past forecasts have consistently been too rosy, with West Virginia under performing. For example West Virginia is about 50,000 jobs short of where BBER’s 2013 forecast said the state would be in 2017.

The main gist of the report is that after several years of struggling economically compared to the rest of the country, West Virginia is beginning to slowly rebound, but will continue to trail the rest of the country. Notably, the report expects the coal industry to stabilize, and manufacturing employment to grow, but with most of the growth coming from the opening of two major facilities in the eastern panhandle.  The report also notes West Virginia’s demographic challenges, and says that economic development strategies should focus on ways to improve health and education outcomes.

The report does not, however, make any mention of the state’s Right to Work (RTW) law. And while the state’s Right to Work law, passed in 2016, had been on hold, the state Supreme Court ruling putting into effect on September 15th wasn’t a big surprise to its advocates.

It would have taken minimal effort for the BBER to include the impact of RTW in their Economic Outlook. As you may remember, the BBER published an analysis of the economic impact of RTW in 2015 that was funded by the West Virginia legislature. The analysis showed how much RTW would increase the state’s average annual GDP and employment growth, two of the same measures that BBER uses for their Economic Outlook reports. And while their RTW report was criticized for its flawed methodology and unrealistic results, they have stood by its analysis.

But, despite standing by their RTW study’s results, and the fact everyone expected the Supreme Court to hold up the state’s RTW law, BBER did not include it in their analysis, nor did they mention that the Economic Outlook would change substantially once the law went into effect.

For example, BBER’s RTW analysis says that the impact of RTW would add a .056 percent annual increase in annual employment growth. In it’s Economic Outlook Report, BBER projects that employment growth will average 0.7 percent annually. So now that RTW is law, the state’s average annual employment growth should be 1.26 percent, an 80 percent increase over the original forecast. That translates into an additional 21,000 jobs by 2022.

Not only would including the RTW analysis add 21,000 jobs to West Virginia’s Economic Outlook, it would also show a sharp reversal for West Virginia’s growth compared to the nation. After years of lagging behind national growth, including BBER’s RTW impact would show West Virginia exceeding national growth rates by 40% over the next five years.

Including BBER’s RTW analysis completely changes their Economic Outlook report, transforming the story from one about a state whose economy is going to continue to trudge along, to one that is on the verge of an unprecedented economic turnaround. If it makes such a huge difference, why not at least mention it? While the report may have been drafted while the fate of the state’s RTW law was still up in the air, BBER had already done the work and could have easily mentioned  its potential effects. And now that RTW is officially law, BBER is still promoting the Economic Outlook that doesn’t include it. And if they did happen to include the impact of RTW in this year’s report, and just forgot to mention it, that means the employment forecast for West Virginia didn’t change from last year, implying either that RTW had no impact, or that West Virginia’s economy went completely south from last year to this year.

If BBER and other advocates of RTW were confident in their promises about the policy, one would think they would be eager to incorporate it into their official Economic Outlook report, and travel the state telling everyone about the tens of thousands of jobs that are coming. But BBER and other RTW fans aren’t very eager to do so. Instead of being transparent and accountable to the claims made to get RTW passed, those claims are being ignored. Is it believable that West Virginia is poised to lead the nation in job growth the next five years? No, but that was the claim made to get RTW passed. And now that it is law, those promises have been forgotten.

Yes, State Government and Taxes Are Shrinking

When lawmakers passed a “bare-bones” state budget, some lawmakers  expressed that the state government needs to “live within its means” because of our “shrinking population and tax base.” Other lawmakers have suggested that our state budget is too big and that we will need to “continue making cuts to programs and services” and that we should not place “additional tax burdens on our citizens.”

What many of these lawmakers neglected to mention is that our state budget has already been drastically reduced over the last several years and that our tax levels are at an all-time low. Even with our state’s declining population, our per capita spending has declined over the last several years, after adjusting for inflation. While the number of state employees has grown over the last decade, almost all of the growth has been in higher education, which is mostly funded with tuition and fees that aren’t appropriated by lawmakers. State employees funded by the General Revenue Fund, the part of the budget that contains most of the state taxes that support our biggest programs, is at a 10-year low.

State Budget Spending Down, Not Up

Before I show how state spending has changed over the past decade, it first important to understand the different spending accounts or “funds.” There are six main accounts and each of them derive their revenue from different places, including the  General Revenue Fund (mostly taxes), Special Revenue (mostly dedicated fees and some taxes), Lottery Funds (games), State Road Funds (gasoline tax/DMV fees/federal taxes), Federal Funds (income/payroll taxes), and Non-Appropriated Special Revenue Funds (dedicated fees).

While each is important (See Your Guide to the State Budget for more details), the General Revenue Fund (GRF) pays for most of the state’s key budgetary items (e.g. Public Education, Higher Education, Corrections, etc.) and is the source of most of the taxes we pay to maintain government services. The GRF is also the part of the budget legislators have the most control over and it is where most of the budget debate takes place each year.

As the chart below shows, General Revenue Fund appropriations for 2018 are slightly below actual spending in 2013. If you adjust for inflation, the state plans to spend about $350 million less in 2018 than it did in 2013 and $268 million less than it did ten years ago in 2008. (The central reason GRF spending declined in 2010 and 2011 was because of hundreds of millions of additional federal dollars from the stimulus (ARRA) that were used to back-fill spending for higher education, public education, and Medicaid.)

If you look at GRF spending over the last six years with and without Medicaid, it is clear that Medicaid is one of the only growing parts of the state budget and that is largely responsible for any increases in spending since 2012. The growth in Medicaid spending is mostly due to rising health care costs and the depletion of the Medicaid Trust Fund that was built up from a higher federal match rate (FMAP) from the stimulus.

Some policymakers have been quick to point out that West Virginia should be spending less because of its declining population. At quick look at per capita General Revenue Fund spending in West Virginia reveals the state spent less per person in 2016 compared to the past.

Altogether, the West Virginia State Budget Office  estimates that West Virginia has cut its budget by more than $600 million over the last five years. In the final analysis, it is pretty clear that West Virginia’s budget has been reduced over the last several years both in nominal and real (inflation-adjusted) terms.

State Employment Growth is Due to Rising Tuition, Not Increased Budget Spending

While some policymakers have suggested that our state government is too big because the number of people working for state government has grown, this is only true if you are looking at the growth in employment at our public colleges and universities that is funded primarily through tuition and fees, which have grown partly due to budget cuts.

As the graph below highlights, total Full-Time Equivalent (FTEs) positions in state government have grown by 3,685 over the last 10 years, from 38,917 in FY 2008 to 42,145 in FY 2017. However, if you break down the number of FTEs by each spending account or revenue fund it is clear that almost all of the growth is in positions funded by Non-Appropriated Special Revenue that have increased from 8,332 to 11,470 from 2008 to 2017, an increase of 3,138. Meanwhile, state government positions funded by the GRF have declined over this period by 427 FTEs, from 17,335 in 2008 to 16,908 in 2017.

Federally funded state government position have grown by 111 FTEs from 2008 to 2017, while State Road Fund positions – which receive more than one-third of their revenues from federal funds – has grown by 908 over this period. If you just look at funds that comprise only state-source funding, the  General Revenue, Lottery, and Special Revenue funds, the number of state government FTEs has declined by 544 since 2008.

So, what is causing the increase in state government positions in Non-Appropriated  Special Revenue Funds? If you look at the data from executive budget reports, it is being driven almost entirely from Non-Appropriated Special Revenue growth in our two and four-year public colleges which is mostly made up of tuition and fees charged to students. From FY 2008 to FY 2016, Non-Appropriated Special Revenues at West Virginia’s two and four-year colleges have grown by over $450 million while General Revenue Funds have grown by less than $1 million over this period. The decline in state GRF support for higher education has partly led to an increased reliance on tuition/fees to fund the colleges and the people that work there.

As the chart below shows, in 2008, there were 5,345 permanent positions at West Virginia’s public colleges funded by General Revenue expenditures compared to just 4,155 in 2017. Conversely, the number of positions at colleges funded by mostly tuition and fees rose from 5,765 to 8,690, an increase of nearly 2,925. So, while the number of people employed by our public colleges has grown, this isn’t due to more state spending at our public colleges; it due to the increase in tuition and fees that are paid by in-state and out-of-state students.

Taxes Are a Smaller Share of our Income

As discussed above, the General Revenue Fund contains most of the taxes that are collected by the state. Over the last decade, General Revenue collections in West Virginia as a share of the state economy have shrunk from a high of 7.4 percent in 2005 to just 6 percent in 2016. The drop in state revenues as a share of the economy is mostly due to large tax reductions that were phased in beginning in 2006, including the elimination of the business franchise and grocery tax and the reduction in the corporate net income tax from 9 to 6.5 percent. Before the tax cuts were enacted, General Revenue Fund collections made up on average about 7 percent of our state’s economy between 1990 and 2005. At 7 percent, West Virginia would have collected over $650 million more in General Revenue Funds in 2016 than it did.

Moving forward, the state is going to need additional revenues to keep up with the cost of government services, which tend to grow faster than our overall economy (and for good reason). This is especially true for Medicaid and other state health care services. The state will also have to reorganize itself in some manner to deal with population shrinkage – especially in the south – and will need to take steps to lower health care costs, make college more affordable, and ensure that our classrooms are filled with better paid teachers. The one thing we should not be doing is priding ourselves on gutting state government when it will be needed now more than ever if the state is ever going to rebound in the future.

Checking in on West Virginia’s Struggling Economy (March 2016 Edition)

West Virginia’s economy has not been faring well lately, with reports indicating the state has slipped back into a recession. Nationally, the economy has seen some relatively strong performances recently, but low energy prices and declining coal production have hurt mining states like West Virginia. Here a some indicators demonstrating the state’s weakening economy.

West Virginia’s unemployment rate for March 2016 was 6.5%, well above the national average of 5.0%. West Virginia’s rate ranked below only Alaska, D.C., and Illinois for the highest rate in the country. West Virginia’s unemployment rate has increased by 0.3 percentage points in the past three months, while the national rate has been unchanged.


The pace of West Virginia’s decline has picked up recently, even as the national economy grows. Employment in West Virginia has fallen by 500 over the past three months, and the state has lost 5,200 jobs since March of last year. West Virginia is one of only six states to lose jobs from March 2015 to March 2016, and nationally, the economy added 2.8 million jobs over that time period.


Unsurprisingly, the mining industry is the major source of job loss in West Virginia in the past year. Employment in the mining and logging sector in West Virginia has fallen by 5,700 jobs in the past year, a decline of 20.5%. No other industry has come close to the losses of the mining sector. Both manufacturing and wholesale trade struggled losing 700 jobs each in the past year, a decline of 1.5% and 3.1% respectively, while the construction, transportation and utilities, information, and professional and business services all experienced losses of 500 jobs or fewer in the past 12 months.

In contrast, the retail trade, financial activities, and leisure and hospitality industries all saw employment growth over 1% since last year. Employment in the retail trade industry increased by 1,000 jobs, in the leisure and hospitality industry by 800 jobs, and in the financial activities industry by 500 jobs. Employment also increased by 800 jobs in the education and health services industry, while public sector employment at all levels of government increased by 600 jobs, a 0.4% increase over last year.




5 Things You Need to Know about “Right to Work” in WV

The West Virginia Legislature is poised to enact a so-called right-to-work (RTW) law this week. The House of Delegates is taking up an amended version of the “WV Workplace Freedom Act” this afternoon. The law would prohibit unions and employers from negotiating a contract that requires employees who benefit from union representation to pay for their fair share toward those costs.

So far, 25 states have enacted RTW laws, predominantly in the South and Southwest. While right-to-work laws have nothing to do with guaranteeing jobs for workers, some in the business community view it as a strategy for attracting new businesses to locate in West Virginia, despite its downside risks of lowering wages and hurting unions that helped build the middle class in our country.

Here are five important things you need to know:

 1. It’s about lowering wages and eroding workplace protections. As an economic development tool, the professed aim of RTW is to reduce the power of unions by depriving them of resources (dues), which ultimately weakens the union and strengthens the employers’ hand in bargaining for lower pay and benefits. By decreasing the likelihood that businesses will have to negotiate with their workers, this will lower labor costs, reduce the cost of doing business, and will supposedly incentivize out-of-state manufacturers and other businesses to locate in West Virginia. If RTW didn’t lower wages and weaken workplace protections across the board, there would be no incentive for companies to move to West Virginia. This, in a nutshell, is the hope of RTW supporters such as the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce.

 2. Academic research is unanimous that RTW reduces unionization. While there is no strong evidence that RTW laws help or harm a state’s economy, there is a broad academic consensus that it weakens labor unions. If this happens, it could mean even worse economic and social outcomes in the state. This is because unionization is strongly associated with higher economic mobility, less income inequality, higher wages, safer workers conditions, better benefits and larger voter turnout.

 3. The WVU report on RTW is fundamentally flawed. While a recent study by John Deskins at West Virginia University concluded that RTW would boost jobs in West Virginia, the study is fraught with basic design problems. For example, the WVU study misidentifies that Texas and Utah adopted RTW in the 1990s, when both states adopted RTW before 1960. The WVU study also failed to adopt a standard academic practice that accounts for unobserved differences between states, such as the advent of air-conditioning in the South, access to oversees markets, and other important state characteristics. When researchers at the Economic Policy Institute accounted for these problems and replicated WVU’s findings, they found no relationship between RTW status and employment growth. Tim Bartik, an economist with the Upjohn Institute and one of the country’s leading economic development experts, recently reviewed the WVU study and concluded that it “does not provide any convincing evidence that a state that adopts RTW laws will, as a result, experience faster job growth.” The flaws with the WVU study highlight why state policymakers should not rely on its conclusions to adopt RTW.

 4. RTW is not about “workplace freedom.” While RTW proponents define ‘workplace freedom” as letting workers opt out of paying a representation fee to pay for the benefits they are receiving under any negotiated union contract, most would define workplace freedom as being treated with dignity and respect on the job. That means getting paid an honest wage for an honest day’s work, and having access to benefits such as paid sick days, paid family leave, health care, and a retirement plan. The only freedom workers would receive if RTW were enacted is the ability to get something for nothing.

 5. Low workforce skills are the central reason for West Virginia’s economic woes, not lack of RTW. A recent in-depth study by the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Kentucky that explored why the state is so poor found that the shortage of skilled workers – not RTW – was the central reason for the state’s relative poor economic performance. Since West Virginia faces many of the same social and economic problems as Kentucky, policymakers would be well advised to promote polices that improve the skills of the state’s workforce instead of RTW that could reduce workforce training.

While we are all worried about our economic future and want to build a strong economy in our state with good-paying jobs, enacting right to work is not going to get us there. Instead it may hurt working families by redistributing income from workers to employers and from middle-class taxpayers to the wealthy.  I hope the legislature in West Virginia will see that we can’t build West Virginia by tearing down working families and unions. Instead we need  to focus on the policies that we know work, such investing in early childhood education, research and development, higher education, workforce training, and effective ways to help more people get out of poverty. 

Unionized Women Earn More in West Virginia

In honor of Women’s Equality Day, recognizing the certification of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) released a new report on women in unions. The report found that women in unions earn more than women who are not in a union in every state including West Virginia. 

Women have been growing as a share of total union members in the past three decades, from 33.4% of union members in 1984 to 45.5% in 2014. In West Virginia, women make up 41.9% of union membership. Overall 11.7% of working women are members of a union in West Virginia, compared to 11.9% nationwide.

Union membership tends to result in higher wages and improved benefits, particularly for middle- and low-wage earners, many of whom are women. According to the IWPR study, nationwide, women represented by labor unions earn an average of $212, or 30.9%, more per week than women in nonunion jobs. The union advantage for women is smaller, but still significant when controlling for age, education, and industry. In West Virginia, women in unions earn $176, or 29% more per week than nonunionized women.

West Virginia was one of 32 states where the size of the union-wage advantage was enough to cover the costs of full-time child care for an infant. The report also found women who are labor union members are more likely to participate in a pension plan, and more likely to receive health insurance benefits through their job than women who are not union members.

The report acknowledges that while unionized women enjoy a number of advantages, inequality in the workforce does not disappear for them. The report suggests a number of policies to support working women, including opposing “right to work” laws, increasing the minimum and tipped minimum wages, increasing the overtime threshold, expanding access to affordable and quality childcare, and enacting paid family and sick leave policies.

West Virginia’s Jobs Crisis Continues in July

On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released its employment and unemployment survey for July 2015 and the news for West Virginia’s economy continues to be bad. West Virginia not only has the highest unemployment rate in the nation at 7.5 percent, it is also the only state to have lost a statistically significant number of jobs since July of last year.

West Virginia’s economy has performed particularly poorly over the last six months. Between January and July of 2015, West Virginia has lost 22,500 jobs or about 2.9 percent of its job base, after adjusting for seasonal patterns. 

A Blip on Measuring Local Government Jobs?

According to BLS, about half, or 9,900, of the job losses since January 2015 were in local government, however, almost all occurred between May and June when the school year ended. Since about two-thirds of local government employment in West Virginia  is comprised of people who work for the school system, there is a good chance that this may be a blip in the data. Even though these numbers are seasonally adjusted, meaning BLS takes into account things like school schedules when adjusting the job levels, there is always a lot of volatility in measuring local government employment. As the chart below highlights, even when local government employment is seasonally adjusted, there is always a month or two in which there are large spikes in the data.local gov blip

While there have been recent news stories about local government layoffs due to the decline in the local share of coal severance taxes, we need to wait a few months to see if the data jump back up now that school is back in session.

Construction and Mining Still Shedding Jobs

Outside of local government, the sectors that have suffered the worst job losses are construction and mining. Over the last six months, the state has lost 4,000 construction and 3,400 mining jobs, largely due to the sharp drop in energy prices, especially natural gas, and the continuing decline of West Virginia coal production. Other sectors that lost a lot of jobs over the last six months include finance and insurance (-1,200), professional business services (-900), and leisure  and hospitality (-800).


Since the beginning of the Great Recession in December 2007, West Virginia has had the third-worst job growth in the nation at -2.6 percent, behind only New Mexico and Alabama. Outside of Ohio, each of our neighboring states has more jobs today than before the Great Recession. West Virginia had 19,700 fewer jobs in July 2015 than in December 2007.

Back to the Future?

Moving from the establishment survey, which counts the number of jobs by industry, to the household survey that looks at unemployment, West Virginia’s doesn’t look any healthier than it did in 1980. The number of West Virginians employed and the size of the labor force is roughly what it was nearly 35 years ago. Similar to 1980, there are about 785,000 people in the state’s labor force and between 720,000 and 725,000 people employed.

 backto future

The only good news from July’s jobs report was that the state’s labor force has grown by about 5,000 over the last year and 7,400 over the last six months. Without this growth, the unemployment rate would have been lower, 7.1 percent compared to 7.5 percent. So, a higher unemployment rate is not so bad as long as there is growth in the labor force. That said, even at 7.1 percent, West Virginia still has the highest unemployment rate in the nation.

Time to Power Up

While an aging population and lack of population growth appear to be large factors negatively affecting employment, the state’s energy sector is being hit hard by low prices, competition, and public demand for clean energy. One way West Virginia policymakers could boost the state’s economy would  be to push hard for the White House’s POWER Plus Plan that includes over $5 billion in funding to coal states to help them diversify their economies and help coal miners retrain and retool. Letting politics and ideology get in the way of this investment would not only be a disservice to working families, but will ensure that our coalfield communities continue to decline and deteriorate. 

Recovery in Reverse: The State of West Virginia’s Economy

Andrew Brown has a good piece in the Gazette-Mail highlighting that West Virginia now has the nation’s highest unemployment rate. West Virginia’s economic recovery since the Great Recession (December 2007) has been bumpy but it now appears that the state may be entering a new downturn. Overall, West Virginia has lost 1.1 percent of its jobs base (8,700 jobs) since December 2007,  while the nation as gained 2.5 percent or 3.5 million jobs. In fact, West Virginia has fewer jobs today than it did in 2006. While the decline in coal jobs is one reason for the state’s poor economic performance over the last several years, other sectors are also performing poorly.

The economic recovery for both manufacturing and construction is well below the national average. West Virginia has lost 16.1 percent of its manufacturing job base, compared to 10.2 percent nationally, and nearly 23 percent of its construction job base compared to about 15 percent for the nation as a whole. The closures of coal-fired power plants in the state have also dragged down employment in the utilities sector while other states continue to add jobs. Most surprisingly, the state has lost a large chunk of jobs in leisure and hospitality while nationally these jobs have grown. The one bright spot for West Virginia has been job growth in business and professional services, which typically pay above average wages, and growth in government employment. 

jobgrowth by sector

The mining and logging sector, after initially adding jobs during the recession, has declined over the last three years as demand for coal and lower prices for natural gas have reduced jobs in both industries. However, it is important note that mining jobs over the last 25 years (1990) have averaged about 3.9 percent of total non-farm employment and today it’s just below this number at 3.8 percent. This tells us that the relatively poor performance of other industry sectors is also a large reason for West Virginia’s poor job growth in the economic recovery.

mining and loggingWVmininshare of wv jobs

One other bright spot in June’s unemployment numbers was the  increase in the state’s labor force, which pushed up the state’s unemployment rate. While it is great to see the labor force growing, it has a long way to go before it’s back to historical levels. At 782,000, the state’s labor force is down by 35,000 from its peak of 817,00 in 2009 and it’s smaller than it was in 1980, 35 years ago.

labroforve historica

While the state’s economic recovery is in reverse, it is important that policymakers take the important steps needed to help get it back on course. This would start by efforts to push more people and places out of poverty by enacting a refundable state EITC, investing more in higher education (instead of cutting it) and infrastructure, and avoiding the tax cut mistakes of the past. While national trends (e.g. energy prices) and federal policies have a much larger impact on our state’s economy, well-targeted state policies that invest in communities and educate our children can help us in the long-run to get back to stronger economic growth, and more better-paying jobs.

Income Tax Cuts for Wealthy Unlikely To Boost West Virginia Economy (Part III)

While the last post found that state income taxes have little or no impact on interstate migration, there is also little evidence that slashing or eliminating the personal income tax is a surefire way to boost economic growth in the Mountain State. Most of the states that have followed this path recently have not experienced stronger growth, but they have seen their budget deficits grow. And this means less investment in education, infrastructure, higher education, and other important public goods that provide a foundation for a strong economy. The theory that income tax cuts for the wealthy lead to stronger economic growth is also deeply flawed and contradicted by real world experience, as we shall see.

Here are five simple reasons why we should be very skeptical about cutting income taxes on high income businesses in West Virginia:  

States without income taxes not outperforming those that have income taxes

One simple. but somewhat crude. way to gauge whether the lack of an income tax is a good predictor of economic growth is to examine the performance of states with and without an income tax. While policymakers in West Virginia have not (yet) claimed that no-income tax states are doing better than states with income taxes, high ranking officials in other states, and groups like ALEC and Americans for Prosperity, have all used this as a talking point in advocating for eliminating the state personal income tax.

According to a recent report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, states that go without personal income taxes have failed to outperform others. As the chart below illustrates, between 2002 and 2011 states without income taxes experienced slightly lower economic growth (real GSP per capita), a larger decline in household median income, and similar unemployment rates. 

tax and grown ITEP

States that cut incomes taxes are doing worse

Not only is there little difference in economic performance between no-income and income tax states, but a number of states that have recently cut income taxes in the hope of boosting economic growth have not performed any better as well. From 2002 to 2007, six states – Arizona, Louisiana, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Rhode Island — enacted significant personal income tax cuts on the premise that it would boost economic growth. Three of these states – Arizona, Ohio, and Rhode Island – have seen their share of national employment decline, while New Mexico, Oklahoma and Louisiana have enjoyed above-average employment growth mostly due to the sharp rise in oil prices during this period. 

More recently, since 2012, five states have sharply cut their personal income taxes in the hope of boosting economic growth. Of the five, only North Carolina has outperformed the nation in job and personal income growth. Despite its recent economic performance, North Carolina has made substantial budget cuts and is drastically underfunding schools, colleges and other important public services businesses need to thrive.

Kansas, which enacted the largest personal income tax cuts in recent history, has performed especially poorly. Since Kansas enacted its tax cuts (January 2013), its jobs base has grown only by 2.9% compared to the national average of 4.6% over this period (ending in April 2015) and its personal income growth was 4.3% compared to the national average of 4.6% (2012Q4 to 2014Q4).

Growth Rates bt tax cutting states US avg

When Kansas Governor Sam Brownback enacted these tax cuts he said this would provide a natural experiment in supply-side tax cuts and that the cuts “will be like a shot of adrenaline into the heart of the Kansas economy.” The opposite has happened, along with a $400 million budget hole. West Virginia has also undergone a natural experiment in supply-side economics, cutting business taxes significantly since 2007. The results have been similar: large budget cuts along with very poor job growth

Reality bites when theory rules the roost

As businesses have shifted from paying the corporate income tax to paying the individual income tax (because many companies are now pass-through businesses [S corps, limited liability companies, partnerships, sole proprietors]), policymakers have argued that cutting the personal income tax will lower business costs, thereby boosting investment and job growth in the states that do so.

While standard economic theory predicts that business tax rates can impact whether a business chooses to locate in a particular state because lower taxes mean lower costs, this is only true if all other things are equal (Ceteris paribus) and there’s perfect market competition. Of course, this is almost never the case because there is no such thing as a free market (it is a political construct) or perfect market competition, and states never hold “all other things equal” when they make tax changes that impact public investment.

The theory also hinges on the faulty assumption that the level of taxes are large enough to influence firm behavior or that business taxes are not passed on to customers via higher prices. In reality, business investment and location decisions revolve around a host of considerations, many of which can play a much larger role than state taxes. For example, the cost of electricity, occupancy (rent), raw materials (or inputs), transportation, and labor are usually much larger costs than state and local taxes and can have a greater impact on profit margins especially in different states. As Sean has pointed out, the variations in wages across states is much larger than the savings of any proposed tax reductions. 

The strategy of tax cuts to lower the cost of doing business is also focusing on a very small component of business costs. For example, according to COST, U.S. businesses paid a total of $648.8 billion in state and local taxes (including corporate and individual income taxes, sales and severance taxes, local property taxes, and other taxes) in 2012. According to the IRS, businesses in 2012 deducted $27.7 trillion in federal, state and local business taxes. This means, at the most, business taxes represented about 2.3% of the cost of doing business in the United States.*

cost of doing biz WV If we assume that West Virginia’s share of the $27.7 trillion is commensurate with the state’s share of national private GDP (0.42%), this pushes the share up to 3.3% based on the COST estimate that businesses paid $3.7 billion in state and local taxes in West Virginia in 2012.

One reason West Virginia might be higher is because of its large mining sector. This means for most businesses in West Virginia state and local taxes are probably much closer to 2.3% of total business costs (and even lower lower after their federal reduction of state and local taxes). 

Put another way, if West Virginia abolished its personal income tax it would only reduce average firm cost by about 0.2% at the most.

In sum, it is entirely reasonable to argue that state and local taxes have a relatively minor impact on corporate location decisions because they constitute a small share of business costs and their potential influence is overwhelmed by interstate differences in labor, energy, transportation, and other costs of production, which account for almost 97 percent of total corporate production expenses.

Rational profit-maximizing businesses would also consider the level of public provisions (e.g. good schools, roads, etc.), the quality of life, the supply of a qualified workers, and other state and local policies. Businesses might also look to national tax policies and national economic conditions when looking to expand and make a profit. All of these other considerations throw cold water on the theoretical argument that state taxation alone will have a large impact on economic growth.

This is why it’s very important to move from theoretical assumptions governing the behavior of state business growth and taxes and to focus on the empirical studies that have looked into the impact of state taxes on economic growth.

Tax cut theory at odds with academic research

A recent review of academic peer-reviewed studies by Michael Mazerov at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities concluded that “of the 15 major studies published in academic journals since 2000 that examined the effect of state personal income tax levels on broad measures of state economic growth, 11 found no significant effects and one of the others produced internally inconsistent results.” This means for every one academic study that found personal income taxes boosted state economic growth, there were about four that found no significant effects. A new and very rigorous study conducted by the Tax Policy Institute further undermines the claim that states can improve their economies by cutting personal income taxes. The study found that personal income taxes have a statistically insignificant impact on growth.

So, if anyone ever tells you that there’s a consensus among economists or that “economic theory predicts” that lower state personal income taxes boost economic growth, all you have to do is look at the recent empirical academic evidence and the real-world examples that are unfolding badly across the country. 

Cuts in personal income tax usually result less public investment

While not all income tax cuts are created equal (more on that soon), states that have cut income taxes (mostly for the wealthy) across the country did not do so in a revenue neutral way. Instead, the tax cuts had the predictable consequence of creating large budget gaps that were met by smaller investments in education, higher education, and other important public goods that are vital to support private sector growth (sound familiar?).

In fiscal year 2016, West Virginia is expected to collect about $1.9 billion in personal income taxes. To put that in perspective, the personal income tax alone could nearly pay for our state’s public education costs and it brings in nearly twice what the state pays in Medicaid costs. Because West Virginia must balance its budget, personal income tax cuts that fail to produce the promised economic gains almost certainly will lead to deep funding cuts for schools and other public services. This would not only hold our economy back and exacerbate income inequality, but it would make West Virginia an unattractive place to live, work, and raise a family.

Rather than bet our future on a strategy that has failed to deliver in other states, we need to be making smarter public investments that support the private sector and create an environmental for all to succeed.


 *Using the IRS 2012 figure of business taxes deducted of $569 billion drops this share to 2 percent.It is also important to recognize that the IRS figure includes federal taxes, not just state and local taxes.  This number also does not consider that state and local taxes can also be deducted from federal income taxes paid, which would lower the effective state tax rate. For more on this methodology, please see footnote 5 ( http://www.cbpp.org/research/vast-majority-of-large-new-mexico-corporations-are-already-subject-to-combined-reporting-in) 

Time to Modernize West Virginia’s Excess Acreage Tax

With tax reform looming on the state’s public policy agenda, now would be a opportune time to revisit the state’s Excess Acreage Tax. Since 1905, a corporation purchasing 10,000 acres or more of property in the state is subject to a one-time five cents per acre tax on owning the property. In 1999, Governor Underwood’s Commission on Fair Taxation (3-694) recommended increasing this tax to 50 cents per acre, making it an annual tax, lowering the threshold to 1,000 acres and allowing a credit against the state’s severance tax. This is a step in the right direction and it is long overdue.

As many West Virginians know, one of the state’s historic economic problems has been large absentee land and mineral ownership.  As we discussed in our 2013 report Who Owns West Virginia in the 21st Century?, this problem has not gone away. In 2012, the top 25 land owners in the state owned about 18 percent of the state’s private land and none of the top 10 largest land owners were headquartered in West Virginia. In Wyoming County, two out-of-state companies – Heartwood Forestland Fund and Norfolk Southern – owned over half of the county’s private land in 2012.

Adequate taxation of large landowners could not only spur development of more land in the state (especially in southern WV) but could also provide needed revenue to fund economic development and lower the tax responsibilities of landowners with improvements. According to data from the West Virginia Property Tax Department,  approximately 352 corporate entities (excluding non-profits) owned at least 1,000 acres of land in the state for a total of 3,380,000 acres. At 50 cents an acre, this would amount to an estimated $1.7 million in annual tax revenue – not including the tax credit against the state’s severance tax which would lower this amount. The state’s largest private land-owner – Heartwood Forestland Fund, which owns about 500,000 acres in the state – would have an annual tax bill of about $250,000.

While the proposal of increasing the tax from 5 to 50 cents is a step in the right direction, it might not be high enough to incentivize the development of more land or provide adequate revenue to fund economic development and other priorities. Adjusted for inflation, the five cents per acre tax that was established in 1905 would be the equivalent of about $1.25 today.

One idea would be to create a graduated Excess Acreage Tax rate that increased with the amount of property owned over 1,000 acres. This could help provide a much greater incentive to the largest land owners to develop or sell their land and it would help ensure that those at the bottom end don’t buy more land.


If we started with a tax rate of 50 cents per acre between 1,000 and 2,499 acres and ended with a top rate of $5 per acre over 250,000, it could yield an estimated $10.6 million in revenue (not including the severance tax credit). If the lowest rate was set at a $1 per acre and increased by a $1 per acre until it hit $10 for landowners over 250,000 acres, it could yield $21.2 million annually. It would also be wise policy to exclude any producing farms, which is something we do not want to discourage with the Excess Acreage Tax.

Along with reforming the Excess Acreage Tax, lawmakers could also consider revamping the state’s preferential tax treatment of unimproved land. As the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy has pointed out, using the use-value assessment (UVA) approach instead of the market-based approach that is used on other types of property can dramatically lower property value and taxes.  For example, in Wyoming County, Heartwood Forestland Fund owns a parcel containing 12,463 acres that has an appraised value of $2,358,450 (assessed value is $1.4 million) and their total property tax bill in 2014 was $31,490. This means Heartwood is paying about $2.53 per acre, with an appraised value of just $189 per acre. Using a market-value approach would mean that this land would be valued closer to $500 an acre.

Governor Underwood’s Commission on Fair Taxation was correct in recommending much-needed changes to the state’s Excess Acreage Tax.  As the legislature moves ahead with reforming our state’s tax code this year, they should consider reforming the state’s Excess Acreage Tax. This could not only incentivize economic development in West Virginia, but also provide a much-needed source of revenue as coal continues to decline in southern West Virginia. 


Let’s Not Go Backwards on Paying Social Workers

Last week, the State Senate passed a bill (SB 559) that would except DHHR social workers from the requirement to be licensed by the West Virginia Board of Social Work. According to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Services, this bill aims to get more people to apply for positions within Child Protective Services (CPS). While CPS has suffered from retention problems and high levels of caseloads, eliminating licensure could put vulnerable children at risk and remove important accountability standards. Furthermore, this proposal neglects to deal with one of the central underlying problems, which is low pay. As former State Senator Donald Cook pointed out about CPS workers: “They’re underpaid.  They’re overworked.” 

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (OES), social workers in West Virginia are paid less than their counterparts in almost every state. In 2013, the average salary for child social workers that worked with children was just $31,700 – ranking last in the country.  Mental health and substance abuse social workers where paid even less in West Virginia on average, just $30,300 per year – also ranking last in the nation. While the average salary of healthcare social workers was $42,780 in 2013, this was lower than all but two states.

social workers pay child

Social worker pay 2

Social Workers Pay 3

While it’s good that DHHR is concerned about staffing shortages, eliminating accountability standards for social workers is not going to solve the problem and could make employee turnover worse. Let’s hope the House makes major changes to the bill and that we take concrete steps in the future to ensure that all DHHR social workers get paid a decent wage for their hard and important work. Instead of a race to the bottom, we need a race to the top. Our children deserve no less.