By Bill Rosenberger
House Speaker Rick Thompson is focusing his gubernatorial campaign on job creation -- especially jobs in the small business sector.
The Wayne County Democrat told The Herald-Dispatch Editorial Board Tuesday morning that his agenda is focused on stimulating the state's economy and making it a better business environment. He noted that the state has focused on big businesses in the past and, if elected, he would like to pay more attention to helping small businesses.
Thompson said he'd like to see the payroll tax put into hibernation for one year for small businesses who hire employees. He also says that tax breaks for big businesses should be contingent on those businesses following through on promises of creating jobs.
He is also an advocate of a business court that would specifically handle business-to-business litigation. The program would be modeled after Delaware, where Thompson noted many large companies are based. The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals can implement the business court at any time, he said.
"We specifically authorized the Supreme Court last year to implement the business court," Thompson said.
He also encouraged more investment in the state while continuing to keep the rainy day fund intact. The state has been focused on saving surpluses and Thompson sees potential in a secure rainy day fund, but also in taking some surplus funds and putting it towards investments.
"The current mentality is keep putting it back," Thompson said. "If you put it all back in savings, you can't grow. But you can't spend it all or you will go broke."
One of the investments Thompson suggested was infrastructure, including more funding for roads including the completion of U.S. 35. He said many of the state's secondary roads don't get attention, citing an example of his son's vehicle hitting a pothole and needing a wheel replacement.
"We need to work on our highway system," Thompson said. "And focus on our secondary roads. We have one of highest proportion of secondary roads. We have to get our roads improved."
Thompson also noted the surplus gives the state an opportunity to eliminate the food tax. He said the tax could be reduced by a penny each year that the state had a surplus of $100 million or more until the tax is eliminated.
The current economic climate makes the addition of any tax a burden, especially in border states, Thompson said. The increase of the cigarette tax -- a bill that died -- was introduced at the wrong time.
"Right now, with the economy the way it is, it's not a time to raise taxes," Thompson said, adding that he supports home rule for cities, but that tax proposals, like Huntington's 1 percent occupation tax, shouldn't be part of the plan.
He said elected officials need to be mindful that people aren't going to go across state lines to only buy their tobacco. They'll also buy their groceries and other merchandise.
The cigarette tax revenue was supposed to help drug abuse prevention and treatment, but Thompson said there was enough surplus to appropriate $10 million toward the same purpose -- a move passed by lawmakers. But that line item was one of a handful vetoed by acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
"Obviously it's not a priority to some of them, but it is to me," he said. "More than half that surplus is unappropriated and it could have been used."
Thompson, a lawyer and elected official for the past 11 years, also talked about his upbringing. His father, a coal miner, was killed on the job before Thompson was born. The mine his father was working in hadn't implemented specific head gear safety changes, and he was killed.
Continued mine safety, he said, is a priority.
"I would like to see additional focus on mine safety to prevent accidents before they occur," Thompson said.
He also said legislation to regulate Marcellus Shale is too expansive to be dealt with during the regular legislative session and needs to be crafted in a special session.
He also said he is passionate about seeing the state's education system drastically improved. Thompson, who has received endorsements from the West Virginia Education Association and American Federation of Teachers -- West Virginia, said teachers, bus drivers and cooks helped him along the way.
"The bus driver waited for me because he knew we didn't have running water and it would take me longer to get ready. And the cooks put extra food back for me because they knew we were poor," he said. "Education is the way to a better life."