By Bryan Chambers
Acting Senate President Jeff Kessler says West Virginia is poised for growth and, as governor, he would make sure that the state reaps the benefits.
The Marshall County Democrat told The Herald-Dispatch Editorial Board on Wednesday that while other states are still reeling from the economic recession, West Virginia is in great financial shape.
That's largely because of an effort by state lawmakers in recent years to maintain a solvent rainy day fund, privatize workers' compensation and bolster its bond rating.
"We've always been at the bottom of the valley looking up to the top of the mountain," he said. "Because other states have sunk and because we've been so fiscally responsible, I actually think we're in the game now."
The potential is limitless, largely because of drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation, Kessler said. He views the gas boom as a second chance for the state and its residents to benefit from its natural resources.
If elected governor, Kessler said he would establish a "future fund," similar to what Alaska has done with its rich oil reserves. He said 25 percent of the increase in severance taxes generated from tapping into the Marcellus Shale would be placed into the future fund, where it would continue to grow for a period of 20 years. He foresees it eventually being used for education, tax relief and initiatives to diversify the state's economy.
"Could you imagine how rich this state would be had we done the same with coal?" he said. "It's rare that you ever get a second bite at the apple, but in this instance I think we do."
Kessler said that unlike coal, West Virginia land and mineral rights owners stand to gain as well. Natural gas companies are paying land owners as much as $3,000 per acre to drill and giving mineral rights owners 18 percent in royalties for the natural gas that they extract, he said.
"They're paying a decent nest egg to people, which helps create some wealth here," he said.
Kessler said drilling in the Marcellus Shale also could provide a boost to the state's chemical and manufacturing industries. The Legislature adopted a bill last month that provides tax incentives to "cracker" plants that convert ethane extracted from the Marcellus Shale into a chemical compound used for making plastic products.
Kessler, however, blamed acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin for not taking a lead in proposing regulatory standards for drilling in the Marcellus Shale. He also blamed House Speaker Rick Thompson for the Legislature's failure to adopt regulatory legislation. The Senate adopted its version of the bill with 10 days left in the legislative session, he said.
"There's no reason why we can't have a comprehensive plan in place so it's done safely and in an environmentally friendly manner," Kessler said. "From a business standpoint, it's hard to expand if these companies don't know what the rules of the game are."
Kessler, a Moundsville attorney, also said he's a strong advocate for an intermediate appellate court. Such a court would not only give everyone a guaranteed right to appeal any civil or criminal circuit court case, but also erase perceptions that West Virginia is a bad place for business, Kessler said.
A bill establishing an intermediate appellate court passed the Senate this year, but died in the House over concerns about potential costs.
"One of our major problems is perception," Kessler said. "If we're going to spend a few million more in an $11 billion budget so everyone has a right of appeal, it definitely sends signals that we are in fact open for business."
On the education front, Kessler said he supports efforts for year-round schooling. Most industrialized nations are teaching their kids 200 to 220 days a year, he said.
Kessler also is in favor of evaluations for public school teachers and does not oppose student performance being part of that process. But the evaluations must somehow recognize that not all student classrooms are identical, he said.
"I understand there are deviations we need to build in, but at some point we have to have accountability."