Oct. 03–Even candidates from the same party running in the 36th District of the House of Delegates don’t agree on how to fund cost increases to the Public Employees Insurance Agency.
Five of six candidates running for the district’s three seats spoke to editors of the Charleston Gazette-Mail last week at a candidate forum. There, they also addressed what they could do as lawmakers to improve education and the economy in West Virginia.
Neither of the two incumbents seeking re-election said a severance tax should be imposed to cover PEIA’s rising costs, which has been a growing idea among Democrats.
Delegate Larry L. Rowe, D-Kanawha, instead said the state should levy a natural gas production — not severance — tax. He said this would tie the state revenue to the volume of gas produced, not what it sold for, which he said would be a less volatile revenue stream and could better handle price fluctuations.
“The beauty of the production tax is that it would go up every time we add a pipeline, and pipelines it seems, are coming,” he said.
While Rowe said there are some positive economic trends in West Virginia, they don’t account for some regions that are still faring much worse than elsewhere in the state and U.S.
“I know that some folks have been proclaiming and celebrating the fact that the overall economy in the state is up, and we want that, but it’s also sectionalized,” he said. “It’s not up in Southern West Virginia, and that’s where we need to focus.”
Looking at the math of it all, Delegate Andrew Robinson, D-Kanawha, said given PEIA Director Ted Cheatham’s report on how sharply costs will rise in coming years, none of the ideas he’s seen will keep up.
He said there will likely need to be an overhaul of how PEIA is structured and what benefits are available who can receive them, to ensure its viability.
“A lot of the fixes we talk about are a long-term funding stream,” he said. “My concern is, if we can keep up with that no matter what funding stream we tie to it. We’re looking at somewhere around — Mr. Cheatham told us it was $50 million a year with 10 percent compounding interest, with medical costs raising somewhere between 6 to 10 percent annually. So even if we tie severance tax or something like that to it, I don’t know if we can keep up with it.”
Several of the candidates said they didn’t necessarily have the silver bullet to cure a mammoth problem like PEIA, but offered insight into their general outlooks on lawmaking.
Amanda Estep-Burton, a Democrat running for one of the seats, advocated for increased severance taxes on natural gas.
She said she worked her way up from being an unemployed single mother to an assistant vice president as a commercial banker, and decided to run after the 2016 elections given the declining economy and worsening opioid epidemic.
“I know how to put people over politics and how to work in the best interests of West Virginia families to create jobs and a future for our children,” she said.
Chris Pritt, an attorney running as a Republican, said as a legislator, he’d work to lower taxes and ease regulations to enable business to prosper. Likewise, he said the education system needs to transition to prepare students for the jobs that exist in the state.
“We have seen an out-migration for decades in our state, and I think that was the result of basically what were bad policies,” he said. “What we need to do is focus on policies that are going to encourage economic development in West Virginia and in particular, the 36th district.”
He said while the state dollars-to-student ratio fares well compared to other states, it tilts more toward the administration than teaching costs, and he’d like to find a way to pare that down.
Matthew Jarrett, a Republican who said he’s running to represent the “common man,” said he believes there’s widespread fraud in the school systems and he’d like to see them thoroughly audited. He said he’d like to see schools drift more toward privatization — i.e. a charter school system — and that corporate tax rates should be decreased.
He also said the coal economy is not likely to rebound anytime soon and the state needs to transition its economy toward renewable energy sources.
“Coal is not going to be here very much longer, really, it’s a dying industry,” he said. “It’s came back in the past couple of years but it’s never going to be where it was, and it’s going to get too expensive to mine.”
He pushed back on the idea of adding any supplemental funding stream to PEIA, and said it should rely on its pooled premiums alone to cover costs.
Ethan Morris is also running in the race as a Republican, but did not attend any of the candidate forums.
The 36th District covers the southeastern corner of Kanawha County.
Phil Kabler contributed to this report.
Reach Jake Zuckerman at email@example.com, 304-348-4814 or follow @jake_zuckerman on Twitter.
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