By Joselyn King
West Virginia is expected to make much money from Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jeff Kessler wants the state to save a quarter of the resulting severance tax dollars for the future.
Kessler, of Marshall County, presently serves as acting president of the West Virginia Senate. He introduced Senate Bill 491, which would have created the West Virginia Future Fund, during the recent legislative session; however, the measure wasn't considered by the Senate.
Creation of the Future Fund -- which would set aside 25 percent of the taxes West Virginia receives from Marcellus Shale production for at least the next 20 years - now is the cornerstone of Kessler's gubernatorial campaign.
Kessler noted during a speech at the Ohio County Public Library on Tuesday that past generations missed out on a similar opportunity to save money from coal severance taxes.
"Can you imagine how much richer the state would be if our forefathers 50 years ago had set aside money every time coal was taken out of our land?" he asked. "We would be one of the richest states in the union - but they did not. They did not have the courage or the vision. But under my vision for leadership, we will see West Virginia saving for its future."
The money would be left untouched in a separate endowment account for a period of 20 years under Kessler's plan. After that, the dollars would be used to diversify the economy, improve educational opportunities in the state, and provide tax relief, he said.
It's estimated that Marcellus drilling will bring in $65 million in severance taxes to West Virginia this year, according to Kessler. Under his plan, about $16 million would have been saved for the future.
And experts predict Marcellus Shale production could result in about $235 million in yearly severance tax collections, Kessler continued. This would mean about $74 million in annual savings for the state.
He based the idea for the "Future Fund" on a similar program in Alaska. There, state residents received yearly dividends from severance tax dollars resulting from oil drilling and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, Kessler said.