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G-Comm™: Hoppy’s Commentary - WV Taxes: Progress, But Still A Ways to Go

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Here’s another reason to celebrate the New Year. The final portion of West Virginia’s regressive Business Franchise Tax is coming off the books.

The state Legislature began phasing out that tax, as well as reducing the state’s Corporate Net Income Tax, in 2011.  Over the last five years the franchise tax has been reduced from .34% to zero while the corporate net has been brought down from 8.5% to 6.5%.

The 1999 Governor’s Commission on Fair Taxation’s comprehensive review of the state’s tax code called the franchise levy “anti-growth, anti-capital,” particularly for small businesses, that reduced the state’s competitiveness.

Governor Tomlin, who was the Senate President when the tax improvements were made a few years ago, was among those who supported the tax reductions

“The Business Franchise Tax, created in 1987, was one of the taxes that made it difficult for West Virginia to compete for new and expanding business,” Tomblin said in a statement Tuesday.  “Coupled with the reduction in the Corporate Net Income Tax and the dramatic decrease in workers’ compensation rates, these changes have helped our state secure additional investments and will continue to pay dividends now and for years to come.

The Governor is correct. The franchise tax was little more than a cash grab from business for the “privilege” of doing business in the state.  The corporate net was way too high.  The current rate, however, is closer to, or lower than, the rates of our surrounding states.

These reductions have prompted the non-partisan Tax Foundation to rank West Virginia as having the 21st best tax climate in the nation, a significant accomplishment for a state that struggles to present a business-friendly environment.

There’s more work to be done, however.  The personal property tax on inventory and machinery puts the state at a competitive disadvantage.  According to the Commission report, “The tax is complicated, difficult to enforce, inequitable and discriminatory in that only certain entities are typically monitored for compliance.

Also, the state’s Consumers Sales Tax is badly outdated.  It was added in 1931 as a tax on tangible goods, but over the years the economy has shifted from making things to providing services. Dozens of these services are exempt from the sales tax.  Ideally, this tax would be broader with a lower rate.

These additional tax changes should be right in the wheelhouse of the new Republican majority at the statehouse, but I’m not sure they want to tackle taxes in the session that begins in just two weeks.  GOP leaders know they need the revenue from the inventory tax to help balance a strained budget, and they haven’t likely had time to put together a complicated and controversial reform of the sales tax.

Governor Tomblin is rightfully crowing about the tax updates that have been made.  “I’m confident our state’s economy and business climate will continue to grow far in the future,” Tomblin said.  What he does not add is that we still have some unfinished business.

G-Comm™: Hoppy’s Commentary - My Top 10 Stories of 2014

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We in the media love end-of-the-year lists.  I’m no different, so here’s my short list of the top West Virginia news stories

10. President Kopp dies unexpectedly. Marshall President Stephen Kopp died of an apparent heart attack earlier this month.  Kopp, who led Marshall for nine years and oversaw $200 million of campus improvements, was only 63.  The Marshall football team wore stickers on their helmets with Kopp’s initials in their bowl game, where the Herd defeated Northern Illinois 52-23.

9. Same-sex marriage becomes legal. Court decisions rapidly struck down provisions against same-sex marriage. In West Virginia, state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey gave up his fight to preserve the Defense of Marriage Act, prompting state DHHR Secretary Karen Bowling to announce in October that same-sex couples seeking a marriage license would not be turned away at county courthouse.

8. Plants quits. Kanawha County prosecutor Mark Plants resigned after months of pressure. Plants was the subject of public controversy after he was charged earlier in the year with two domestic-related misdemeanors in connection with his messy divorce.   Plants has since gone into private practice.

7. From the bench to jail. U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin said Mingo County Circuit Judge Michael Thornsbury ran Mingo County like “Boss Hog.” Last June, Thornsbury was sentenced to four years in prison for abusing his authority as the county’s only circuit judge.  The federal probe also netted Mingo County’s prosecuting attorney, a county commissioner, a magistrate and a state trooper.  As the year ended, rumors continued of perhaps even more indictments for political corruption

6. From best friends to teen killers. At a January court hearing, Shelia Eddy, 18, admitted that she and Rachel Shoaf brutally murdered their high school classmate and former best friend Skylar Neese. Neese disappeared a year-and-a-half earlier after sneaking out of her parents home to hang out with Eddy and Shoaf, who she thought were her friends.  Despite the plea, it remained somewhat unclear why the two felt compelled to stab Neese to death other than vague references to not wanting to be friends any longer. The murder shocked the community and subsequent legal proceedings made national news

5. WVU hires E. Gordon Gee as President. Gee agreed to return to Morgantown to serve in the interim following the departure of Jim Clements to Clemson. However, the longer Gee stayed, the more he became intrigued with taking the job for a second time, and that was made official in March.    Within a few months, the outspoken and sometimes controversial Gee was faced with familiar problems of rioting students and the death of a severely intoxicated student at a frat house

4. Coal struggles continue. Economic and regulatory pressures continued to make life even more difficult in the West Virginia coal fields. Competition from cheap and plentiful natural gas, along with EPA pressures that make it harder to mine and burn coal, forced layoffs and cutbacks in the state’s most important industry.  The challenges spawned more debate over whether coal would survive

3. Don Blankenship is indicted. Immediately after the April 2010 explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29 miners, federal investigators began a probe of the tragedy. They methodically worked their way up Massey Energy’s corporate structure and, in November, they brought charges against the controversial former Massey CEO Don Blankenship.  The indictment accuses Blankenship of pushing production over mine safety in the months leading up to the explosion.

2. Chemical spill causes water emergency. On January 9th, thousands of gallons off MCHM, a chemical used to clean coal, leaked from an aging and dilapidated storage tank into the Elk River and quickly reached American Water Company’s treatment plant just a mile and a half downstream. The spill set off a water emergency, fouling the drinking water for up to 300,000 customers in a nine-county region. The crisis prompted the Legislature to pass new regulations for above ground storage tanks.

1. West Virginia turns red. Republicans took both chambers of the West Virginia statehouse for the first time in more than eighty years. Shelley Moore Capito trounced Natalie Tennant to become the state’s first female Senator and state’s first Republican Senator since the 1950’s.  Long-time Democratic Congressman Nick Rahall was defeated by Republican Evan Jenkins in the 3rd Congressional District, while the GOP retained seats in the 1st and 2nd districts.   The defeat divided the Democratic Party as it heads into 2015 searching for a new direction.

How Prosecutors Think

The Gilmer Free Press

Those in our lives whom we consider to be most objective, who in many ways are paid to be objective, have repeatedly been shown to be anything but objective. Rather, they make decisions that are consistently influenced by unconscious (implicit) bias. White NBA referees call more fouls against black players than against white; MLB umpires are more likely to erroneously call a ball a strike if an all-star pitcher is on the mound; Israeli judges are more likely to grant parole at the beginning of the day than before lunch; doctors are less likely to provide adequate pain medication to patients of color and, because of bias, are prone to predictable errors in diagnostic reasoning.

Doctors’ cognitive errors and biases have been well studied and chronicled, most notably by Jerome Groopman in his book “How Doctors Think.” These include premature closure- latching on to a diagnosis too quickly; attributional bias- being unduly swayed toward a particular diagnosis because of a single patient attribute (age, race, gender) and ignoring evidence that points to alternative diagnoses; and confirmation bias- (often accompanying premature closure) accepting evidence that supports one’s diagnosis and discounting evidence that goes against it. This topic is, or at least should be, a critical component of every medical student’s education. I teach about it each year to medical students and a central theme that I emphasize is the need to recognize that unconscious biases are universal: that no one is immune; and that one needs to accept their existence, be aware of, rather than blind to, them. Deny them, ignore them, pretend they don’t exist and the risk of errors in diagnostic reasoning is certain to rise. As I followed the actions of the prosecuting attorney and the proceedings of the grand jury in the People of Missouri versus Darren Wilson case, I felt an eerie sense of familiarity with the risks, potential pitfalls, and resulting negative clinical outcomes that I teach about in class– I was watching a possible misdiagnosis unfold.

Soon after Michael Brown was killed, St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch stated that he was not biased and if anything, he would be biased in favor of the victim. This, despite being the son of a police officer killed in the line of duty by an African American; this, despite more than 20 years working intimately with a mostly white police force; this, despite working during those same years to put mostly African American defendants behind bars. This despite having said about two unarmed black men killed in 2001 by DEA agents, “These guys were bums.”

McCulloch took a tack early on in the proceedings, however, that could shield him from charges of bias. He wouldn’t cherry-pick the evidence; he would show it all to the grand jury. How could that be biased? What McCulloch appears to have failed to recognize is that the way that evidence is put forward is susceptible to bias. One could argue that simply putting forward all of the witnesses (in this case 45) produced a situation in which greater inconsistencies between witnesses was virtually assured and the element of doubt, which would support a ruling of no true bill, would be raised.

McCulloch may have been swayed early in the case by attributional bias. Who was he to believe? Darren Wilson- a white police officer or Dorian Johnson- a dreadlocked African American who was with Michael Brown during a “strong-armed robbery” earlier that day, who had a criminal record and a history of lying to police? But McCulloch took another step to try to assure objectivity: he would place the foundation of his case on the “physical and scientific evidence.” In his announcement of the grand jury decision, McCulloch asserted that “Physical evidence does not change because of public pressure or personal agendas, physical evidence does not look away when events unfold, nor does it block out or add to memory. Physical evidence remains constant and as such is a solid foundation on which cases are made.” What McCulloch failed to recognize is that interpretation of physical evidence is not completely objective. Several interpretations of the autopsy advanced in the media are completely false. The autopsy did not prove that there was a struggle for the gun, rather it simply showed that Michael Brown’s hand was near the gun when he sustained the wound to his thumb. The autopsy did not prove, as some believe, that Brown could not have had his hands up with his palms facing Wilson. About the only thing that the autopsy could prove is that Wilson did not come up and shoot Brown in the back as he lay on the ground as a few witnesses asserted.

So how does it appear that McCulloch used his false interpretation of the evidence? In his announcement of the decision, he stated, “witnesses were confronted with the inconsistencies and conflicts between their statements and the physical evidence. Some witnesses admitted they didn’t see the shooting or only saw part of the shooting or only were repeating what they heard on the street. Some others adjusted parts of their statements to fit the facts. Others stood by their statements even though their statements were completely discredited by the physical evidence.” Sadly, the interpretation of key components of the physical evidence, the science that McCulloch stated was the foundation of his case was terribly flawed and was not actual fact.

Once McCulloch had the evidence he thought he needed to support Darren Wilson’s narrative, it appears that confirmatory bias came into play. Witness 10, who was one of the few witnesses to claim that Michael Brown charged the officer, was subject to virtually no cross-examination even though he initially stated that he was 100 yards away from the shooting. For that matter, Darren Wilson himself received gentle treatment from the prosecutors. Other witnesses whose narratives contradicted Wilson’s were often subject to aggressive questioning. Witness 14, an apparent senior citizen who was concerned about those in the neighborhood “embellishing” and who stood within feet of the incident, provided detailed and compelling testimony that Brown had his hands up at his shoulders as he turned to face Wilson; that he was staggering, not charging; and was falling to the ground, clearly disabled, as Wilson unleashed the final fatal series of shots. This witness was repeatedly grilled about the details of his recollection. A detective was even brought in to question the conclusions that this witness had made.

McCulloch and his colleagues put together a case, a narrative, that appears to have been built on an illusory foundation. They appear to have been blind to the implicit bias that may have contributed to this. In medicine, this would have led to a misdiagnosis; in this case, it may have led to a miscarriage of justice.

~~  Stuart Slavin, MD, MEd - Associate Dean for Curriculum, Saint Louis University School of Medicine ~~

Our Christmas Schizophrenia

The Gilmer Free Press

On Christmas Eve 1914, German and British soldiers crept out of their trenches, played soccer together, exchanged gifts of food, and joined in singing carols. Alarmed, commanders on both sides warned of the crime of “fraternizing with the enemy” and the war ground on for an additional four years, not only killing millions but setting the stage for the next world war two decades later.

From the safe perspective of a new century, those soldiers who tried to reach out peacefully to one another seem sane and realistic, while hindsight shows their generals to have suffered from a kind of mental illness based in rigid over-adherence to abstractions like flag, country and total victory.

A hundred years later it seems we would prefer to sentimentalize the story of Christmas in the trenches rather than using it as a measure of our own mental health. In the way we think about war, most of us suffer equally from group schizophrenia, made infinitely more dangerous by the presence of nuclear weapons combined with antique delusions of victory.

Progressives like to excoriate the obvious war lovers among us, politicians who are lost without enemies to blame or pundits who traffic in crude polarizing stereotypes. But we need to acknowledge the beam in our own eye even as we point out the mote in theirs. Tragically, those who try too hard to make sense of the insanity of war can slip into participation in war. Commentators, even liberal ones, wanting to appear sensible and realistic by displaying their comprehensive knowledge of all the parties in complex fights such as the one grinding on right now in Syria and Iraq, drift away from the essential truth that the civil war there is just as senseless as the trench warfare between the British and the Germans a hundred years ago. Calmly accepting least bad options, we choose from a safe distance whom to bomb and to whom to sell weapons, only fanning the flames of chaos.

Mentally healthy discourse about any war on the planet requires a context based in values both spelled out and lived out by pillars of sanity like Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr. These leaders knew that killing solves nothing and that the spirit of vengeance initiates a cycle that leads only to further killing.

“Realists” will reply that the idealism of Jesus and friends is all very well but when we are pushed we must shove back. This fundamental assumption, apparently impossible to refute and always referring back to the uber-case of Hitler, becomes more questionable when looking at the insane karma of America’s response to 9-11-01. Our leaders unleashed a stream of squid-ink that tried to blur Saddam with al-Qaeda when most of the perpetrators were inconveniently Saudi and none Iraqi. Much of the ensuing chaos in Iraq and Syria, along with our horrific descent into the insanity of torture, flowed out of this initial, still unpunished lie.

The light of history reveals that wars often exhibit a causation that implicates all parties—as we know from examining how the Hitler phenomenon was a direct result of the allied powers failing to exhibit a spirit of magnanimity toward a defeated Germany when World War 1 ended in 1918. The Marshall plan demonstrated allied determination not to repeat the same mistake in 1945, and the result was a stability in Europe that endures to this day.

There are practical reasons we set aside holidays to honor Jesus and King, because we know these men taught the only possible way beyond the plague of war—an understanding that we are one human family. Those long ago soldiers in the trenches had the courage to awaken from the insanity of “my country right or wrong” and tried to connect spontaneously with each other on the heart level. If journalists and interpreters could remain with the values context that asserts that all killing is insane, that arms sales that exacerbate such killing are universally shameful, that war is always the failure of all parties to conflict to avoid slipping into the insanity of enemy stereotyping, perhaps a new climate would be created—a positive form of global warming.

~~  Winslow Myers ~~

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