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WestVirginiaWatchDog.org - WVGov Profile: Jeff Kessler

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By Steven Allen Adams

Editor's note: this is a series of interviews I'm doing with all candidates in the May 14 primary special election for Governor of West Virginia. I have reached out to all candidates, either by email, by phone, and in person. I will continue to do so up until May 13. If you are a candidate and have not heard from me and would like to be interviewed, please call me at 304-916-7358 or email steven@westvirginiawatchdog.

Profile: Jeff Kessler, Democrat, first-ever Acting Senate President, state Senator from Marshall County, appointed in 1997, elected in 1998, former assistant prosecuting attorney for Marshall County 1985-2000.

Q: What is your specific plan to elevate our per capita income above 49th?

A: I think West Virginia is poised to, truthfully, have a breakout decade. With the proper leadership, right vision, and courage to make tough choices, I think that West Virginia can truly enjoy a decade that will be extremely prosperous. I know as we come out of the recession West Virginia is actually positioned significantly better than most of our competing states. We've always been at the bottom of the valley looking at the top of the mountain to all our competitors, but frankly because of the economic difficulties they had in the recession they've sunk while West Virginia has held its own. We cannot only at this point catch them, but I think we can surpass them. There is no reason why West Virginia can't be the North Carolina of the 70s or Virginia of the 80s.

As we come through the recession everyone is going to need, believe it or not, what we have and that's energy. That creates enormous opportunities for us to create jobs and wealth in this state, particularly with the Marcellus Shale, As we see a significant increase in the severance tax dollars -- which I think will occur if this boom is nearly as big as what they claim to be, as big as the Alaskan pipeline in the 70s and the Texas oil fields in the 30s -- there will be an enormous amount of economic growth and opportunity in this state.

With that I propose we take 25 percent of that money and set it aside in a savings account; an endowment fund similar to the Alaskan Permanent Fund. I'd call mine the West Virginia Future Fund, where the politicians can't spend it as fast as it comes in like drunken sailors, and actually save money for the future. Can you imagine the message that would send throughout the rest of the nation? For one thing, West Virginia has $660 million in the Rainy Day Fund, our bond rating is good, we haven't had to borrow one penny from the federal government (for unemployment compensation) while other states have, our worker's compensation rates are relatively stable, solvent, and cheaper now than other states.

When folks start looking where they want to go invest and open businesses throughout the country, I think West Virginia is going to have a competitive advantage in terms of cost of doing business and, most importantly, energy. I think we can send a message that while West Virginia is not only able to pay its bills, we're actually saving money for our future, which I think sets us apart from other states, because everyone else is having trouble making ends meet.

In Alaska they did thid and now they have $37 billion-$39 billion in that permanent fund, and every man, woman, and child who lives there gets a check from anywhere between $1,200-$1,300 a year just for living there and there is no income tax. Can you imagine how rich we would be if we'd put a few cents on ton and put it in the bank 50 years ago? If we had done that just in 1980s the projections are we'd have $2.2 billion in the bank now. It would have led to $1.3 billion in interest and monies from growth. We could have already channeled that money back to the state and its residents through tax relief or paid down debt or increased education funding.

That's where I think our opportunities are, truthfully, in this decade and even in the short-term. Adam Smith had it right; it still boils down to supply and demand. We have the supply of energy the nation is going to need, so this time let's not give it away, but let's create real wealth and opportunity for people in this state.

Q: Where do you see waste to cut in government?

A: Frankly…there's really not a lot of fat to trim, there really isn't. Through efficiencies and economies of scale perhaps, consolidating some of our bookkeeping and bill paying functions and a centralized area, we could probbably eliminate some of the duplication of effort in a lot of the different agencies. That could be through a lot of interfacing through our computer system as much as anything to eliminate some of the job duties and descriptions across departments and trying to get that centralized and localized. When it comes to the delivering of the day-to-day person-to-person services, there's not a lot of fat to cut.

Q: How do we address the growing use of methamphetamine and prescription drugs in West Virginia?

A: One would have been to pass a bill that died in the Senate that would have required prescriptions for meth products (pseudoephedrine). Obviously the prescription industry didn't like it and put on a full-court press and made the bill come to a halt in a 16-16 tie in the Senate unfortunately. That aside, I think we need to increase our real-time reporting of purchases of these kinds of drugs, particularly narcotic drugs. Right now when you go in and buy this stuff you have to sign for it, but I don't know if there is real-time reporting to a centralized drug enforcement agency in the state. They could see if someone was going out smurfing and buying multiple prescriptions at different drug stores. I don't know if there is enough oversight of that, so I think that is number one what we need to do in terms of trying to stop it at the stores.

We also need to increase significantly intervention and substance abuse treatment and prevention programs. They're different; intervention and prevention are one thing, but treatment is another. Obviously we have a significant problem with drug, alcohol, and substance abuse in this state that over 80 percent of the people that are incarcerated in our jails and prisons have substance abuse problems. We need to step up our efforts and funding particularly towards substance abuse intervention and prevention. Whether that's through dedication of a specific sin tax, alcohol tax, beer tax, tobacco tax, we need to put significant money into that, not just lip service.

I was disappointed when (Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, acting as governor) this year vetoed through line item veto nearly $500,000 for substance abuse prevention programs. I think that is penny wise and pound foolish, because you're going to eventually see those folks in the jails, emergency rooms, or mental health center wards. It's at a significantly greater cost than if you'd treat them on the outside through community-based substance abuse treatment programs. That's where I feel the state is lacking and we're falling further and further behind.

Q: What needs to be done to grow broadband in the state?

A: We need to take the $120 million we got through the economic stimulus program and we need to continue our efforts to expand our trunk lines and middle-mile capabilities, which is basically what that money is for. That's fine if it gets it through our major cities and arteries, but we need to reach out into the outlying areas; to our rural homes out in our communities. We do that by funding initiatives for what they call the last-mile; getting it not from the trunk through the downtown, but out into the areas, into the hollows and up on hill and down in the valleys where the people live. That can be done through last-mile initiatives. Part of it could be from dedication of our 911 or wireless fees on every phone in this state. We've built probably enough 911 buildings, we now need to start dedicating some of that money to putting the radio towers out to reach those last miles. If you can communicate you can be productive.

Q: What would you do to make the budget process more transparent so the average citizen can track every dollar spent in state government?

A: As much as anything we need to try to lend more transparency to the the unclassified line items by requiring the budget process to be transparent and published online, so the people know where every dime is going and where every dime is spent by each agency, rather than just bulk unclassified employee benefits or bulk salaries. Give us a listing of who they are and how much they make, and that shouldn't be too difficult. I don't know you actually need to incorporate the budget, because the budget is 20,000 pages long. I think you need to have it compressed in the budget document bill itself, but you need to have that supporting documentation available online for people to access.

Q: What needs to be done to fix the state's gubernatorial succession process?

A: In some respects we fixed it. There was never a question as to the line of succession. The Senate President acts as governor; there was never a question who moves up and who moves where. The only question that really ever led to the uncertainty and led to the court case was "when.' There was nothing in the Constitution or statute that required an election to be called or held. That was a problem. Senator Tomblin took the position initially it was going to be 2 1/2 years down the road. There were different interpretations on when it should be held. I think the court of opinion and our statutory reaction to that has fixed it. Anytime there is a vacancy within 90 days the Governor has to issue a proclamation and set an election if there is longer than a year left on the term.

I'm not necessarily sure we need a lieutenant governor. Truthfully we don't, we just need to have an election to pick our governor. I don't know that we need to create a position where someone gets a six-figure salary to sit around and wait for the real governor to die, or have a stroke or become incapacitated. I think out current system works fine. It's worked fine for 150-plus years except one time. I think it was completely within (Tomblin's) power to fix it then if he would have acted more decisively.

Q: As governor, what would you do to encourage development of renewable energy in West Virginia?

A: I think I would increase research and development funding at our universities. There are technologies out there that will clean up a lot of the water problems. I've been meeting with a lot of folks in the technologies that are rapidly developing that permit the dry-filtering and other processes to recycle the water and capture the coal finds and return the water in a purified state, rather than dumping it underground or sitting it in a pond where it poses a potential hazard. Industry needs to be proactive and understand they can't keep doing things the same way they've been doing it for the last 50 years. If they do, they're going to find themselves under greater and greater attack. The technologies are available if they're willing.

They may need some encouragement to adopt, adapt, and incorporate some of these new technologies, perhaps through the carrot-and-stick approach. We're going to ban some of this underground slurry injection, but we're going to give you a tax incentive to incorporate some of these new technologies to clean the water. If we can clean the water up as part of the coal preparation process, 80 percent of the objections to their permits would go away. Permits would go through quicker, they'd mine more coal, and the environmentalists would be happy and they would make more money. It seems like a win-win for everybody. The days of dumping it over the hill or dumping it underground is over.

Alternative energies are all fine, but in order to meet the base-load energy needs of this country, particularly in the manufacturing sector, there's not enough solar panels and there's not enough wind farms that are going to do it. There's no other viable alternative in the next couple of decades for the base-load energy needs of this country other than carbon fuels. That's a cold hard fact. Let's try to clean it up as much as we can and encourage them to do clean coal technologies and abide by the Clean Water Act. I think that's not only the cold hard facts, but it's in the best interests of West Virginia and our tax revenues.

Q: How do we balance the needs of every party involved in Marcellus Shale, while at the same time not making the same mistakes we made with the coal industry?

A: One of the ways is what we talked about already, the Future Fund. We let five or six land companies come into this state back in the 1800s and early 1900s and buy all the land where there's coal, particularly in the southern part of the state. That was fine when there was about 150,000 coal miners in the state; they were providing jobs and opportunity for people. But as they mechanized we're now down to 14,000 coal miners. When the jobs went away these people had nothing else left, and the land, the coal, and the resources are all owned by out-of-state coal and land companies.

The poorest counties in the state -- Boone, Mingo, Logan, McDowell -- have been the richest coal-producing counties historically. They had nothing left to diversify their economy. That's why if we have a second bite at the apple with Marcellus we need to save some of the money, so when that gas is gone we'll have a fund of money to help diversify our economy through training, educating our children, through research and development and other initiatives, even clean energy initiatives. We need to make sure that this time the wealth stays within the state rather than being exported out of the state.

With the gas they're coming in and leasing it, so in some respects West Virginians are partners in the operation…so it isn't like money is being transported out of the state like it was with coal, when they came in and took it and all they gave you was jobs. Here we're not only creating jobs, but we're creating wealth and ongoing opportunities to have income returned to the state.

Truth of the matter there was no leadership out of the Governor's office and there was no leadership out of the House that was willing to tackle the issue (of Marcellus Shale regulation legislation). The Senate passed a bill. Was it a perfect bill? No, but doggoned we passed a bill on March 2, which was before crossover day so the House would have a vehicle to look at and pass. They kept playing with the bill over there. It would move quickly, two steps forward, one back, two steps forward, one back. It looked like, at the end of the day, they just lost the leadership and lost all commitment to passing a bill.

I can't work on a compromise bill between two versions if the only version we have is the one we sent over and they didn't touch or send anything back. We were prepared to meet in full and free conference to reach a bill that would have set a basic regulatory framework up for protection of our water, our roadways, our surface owners, and our mineral royalty owners as well. For some reason the brakes came on over in the House. I know the industry wanted a forced pooling provision. When they didn't see forced pooling come out of the Senate bill they put the brakes on in the House.

Q: What are your thoughts on home rule?

A: I think home rule needs to be expanded. We need to give our local governments who are in charge of delivering the day-to-day services in our communities -- the fire protection, the police protection, water, garbage pick-up, sewage, public service districts, counties -- additional revenue and the flexibility to raise revenues to provide the services our citizens depend on. Constitutionally they're in a tough spot. The only real way they have to raise any revenues is through the most regressive tax on the books, and that's through the B&O tax, which is an awful tax. We need to change not only our tax structure as it pertains to our local governments, but also their ability to have additional flexibility to raise revenues necessary for them to provide services.

Q: What do we need to do to address our growing public pension debt and our $8 billion Other Post-Employment Benefit (OPEB) debt?

A: We've done work on that and Sen. (Brooks) McCabe took the lead on that. We tried to get a bill out of the Senate, it died up in Senate Finance in a very close 9-8 vote by putting the tobacco tax in it. When that happened, despite our disappointment, I called my leadership in and said "guys, we're going to pass an OPEB bill.' It's too important to not deal with. We did in fact come together and pass a bill. Granted, it had no funding mechanism, but it required that the Legislature, by July 1, 2012, to come up with the funding. It has to be done; no one was crazy about a tobacco tax, but we have to come up with something.

It's similar, in some respects, to our workers' (compensation) debt. We had a $4 billion debt there. We tackled it and I was part of the leadership that wrote the workers' comp bill; myself, Sen. McCabe, Don Caruth, Sen. (Walt) Helmick. There was a team of five of us that put the bill together to tackle that, and we did. Guess what? We're dedicating about $90 million a year or so out of our state income tax that is directed to pay down the workers' comp debt. In 2016 it's paid off.

There is no reason we can't take that money in 2016 and use it to apply towards this OPEB debt. We need to come up with a funding source -- around $250 million -- by 2016. The House sent us over a bill on the last night at 9 p.m. with a take-it-or-leave-it posture of taking it out of the Rainy Day Fund or nothing. We weren't prepared to do that without discussing it in conference or calling a Wall Street investment adviser and finding out what that would do to our bond rating. We weren't prepared to make a snap decision on that. We're close to getting a solution and I think we can, but we need to work together rather than playing games. I think if we could get the (acting) Governor to put it on the special call we could solve it within a week.

The other thing you need to do is control the rate of medical inflation. With costs of medical care going up, that's why it's $8 billion. If we cut that in half, we cut that debt in half. We just need the courage and commitment to do it; not say we don't want to do it this year because it's an election year. It ain't going away. Leaders lead; when there is tough decisions you make them, you don't worry about the consequences.

Q: Do the candidates support legislation to ban anti-gay discrimination?

A: I have and I will. No one in West Virginia should be discriminated against for any reason, any time, any place, period. Some might say we're making special laws for gays. No, we're not. If you want to pass a law that everyone is treated equally -- you can't discriminate against anyone -- then that's fine. But when you say we're going to start protecting classes under a Human Rights Act and say you can't discriminate against anybody, including race, sex, religion, political affiliation, but we're not going to say sexual orientation? That's crazy.

If you're going to set up classes, then that one needs included as well. There is a significantly greater likelihood of someone being discriminated against, held up to ridicule, and tormented because of sexual orientation than any other reason. If you want to get rid of them all, someone introduce a bill saying let's get rid of race as a protected class, or sex. I'm waiting to see someone step up and do that. I haven't yet. If we're going to have classes, we protect them all.


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