Editor's Note: Through May 4, The Register-Herald will publish a daily story featuring in-depth interviews we conducted with candidates seeking the office of governor of West Virginia. All of the 16 people who filed were issued an invitation to appear before our editorial board, and 14 of those came to Beckley to meet with us and discuss some of the key issues in West Virginia. The stories will appear in the order in which the candidates were interviewed. Today's story focuses on Democratic candidate Rick Thompson, of Lavalette.
1 -- It certainly appears that Marcellus shale regulation will remain a major topic of interest for the next several years. What are the key features that you see that need to be included in West Virginia law to order to best serve the interests of all the parties involved?
First thing, I think it's too big an issue to try to deal with it in general session. We need to have a special session just dealing with Marcellus shale regulations. You have so many different impacts that this could have on West Virginia. Obviously, you have the amount of jobs it could create, the amount of income to the state of West Virginia, but you also have concerns with this type of operation, such as environmental concerns as it relates to our water, surface rights owners concerns as it relates to protecting the surface rights. You need inspectors to make sure they're complying with whatever rules and regulation that you put in place. So what you need to do, I think, is to get a big group together and develop legislation that balances this between the industry and the environmental and surface owners and then call a special session, because there's so much at stake. So you're not distracted by doing budgets and all the other issues that you're doing. So the first thing I would do as governor is get this together, get regulations in place, call a special session and ask the Legislature to adopt my proposal.
2 -- As the debt for OPEB continues to rise, what steps need to be taken to stem the tide and begin reversing this trend?
I think you could look at what we passed on the House side. It was a very good bill that would have addressed OPEB. What we couldn't get was the Senate to fully fund it. Remember, the Senate passed an OPEB answer that didn't have any funding in it. The House passed a version that was completely funded. What we did was borrow for four years from the Rainy Day Fund which was in excess of the amount we need to foot the people at Wall Street. And we borrowed for four years, and then we starting using the personal income taxes going into the workers' compensation old fund, because it will be paid off. We could address that money into OPEB. The thing that we did for sure was we did not want to address the OPEB liability on the backs of retirees, which is what the Senate proposal did. We want to address it fully funded. As governor, I can get that legislation passed. What it will do... the local boards of education are now putting aside money to address the OPEB liability. They're not paying it. They're just putting it aside. So passing that legislation will free up over $200 million to be used for public education in West Virginia. I was really upset that it did not pass, because we had a very good proposal, I believe. I think there needs to be leadership from the governor's office. As governor, I would push to get that issue addressed as we did so in the House. And that would free up all that money.
(Can this debt be erased without raising taxes?)
Yes. It sure can. The way we addressed it was to get the money from the Rainy Day Fund and move the personal income taxes going into the old fund of workers' compensation. There was no tax increase at all in it. It would have paid it off in a timely manner and addressed the last unfunded liability that West Virginia has that we're aware of right now, without raising any taxes.
3 -- Transportation remains a significant issue, especially in our region. What specifically will you do as governor to try to resolve the funding crisis as it relates to financing new construction and providing for adequate maintenance of our existing roads and bridges?
You get two things when you do that. When you address infrastructure and you fix our secondary roads and move things into that area, you also create jobs. The biggest issue in West Virginia is so many West Virginians are out of work. They need a job. One thing you can do to promote that job growth is build your infrastructure and repair your infrastructure. What happened during the session, the administration and the governor had a proposal to raise the DMV fees, which hadn't been raised in years. That was their way of addressing it. It was over $40 some million, which was approved by the House and Senate, then vetoed by the governor. It's his administration saying, "Let's do it this way."
We went along, and then he vetoed it. What we thought was answering some of the problem didn't answer it because they were for it before they were against it, I believe. That's where we're at. We need real leadership. I would get people in place, the secretary of transportation, that would be running my agenda, not their own agenda, to get this situation addressed. I would be supportive of what the people in my administration put forth in a proposal to address it, because we've got to do it. My son hit a pothole at home, and it cost $765 just to fix the tire and the wheel. So it would be a long time to pay that much in increased fees. We've got to address the situation. I'll find a secretary of transportation and the people that will put together a plan to fully fund the repair of our secondary funds. Over 70 percent of our roads in West Virginia are out of the interstate highway system, so we have to find a way to fund them in the state. That's why we've got to make that a priority.
(What do we do about new roads?)
One thing we won't do is borrow from our pension funds to do it, which was proposed during session by the acting governor. We are used to having federal funds for those federal highways and for a few projects. And we still need a lot of those projects. We have a Rainy Day A-Fund and Rainy Day B-Fund. Rainy Day A and Rainy Day B combined here are almost 17 percent of our budget, 16.7 to be exact. Wall Street requires a 10 to 15 percent window in order to get your bond ratings where they should be. So we've already got extra money in Rainy Day funds that we can use on certain things, building infrastructure, building roads and giving some small business tax breaks. Because I think the No. 1 problem is jobs. We can give those small businesses a tax-free holiday for a year for any new employee they hire, not pay a payroll tax on that new employee for the first year to encourage growth. That will grow more income for West Virginia to be able to do some of the things we want to work if we put more West Virginians back to work. We've got almost one in 10 out of work. So that should be the priority -- getting those people back to work. Now, when it comes to those major projects, we've got to put together a task force to continue to work with our federal representatives to try to make sure West Virginia gets its fair share of those funds to be able to use on those new projects and whatever it takes matching wise from the state level we need to be able to do it. This year alone, we'll have over a $250 million general revenue surplus. Half of that will go into that same Rainy Day Fund that's already almost at 17 percent. We can't just keep putting the money away. It's good to have Rainy Day funds, and we must preserve that. We have to have a balanced budget. As speaker, I've balanced five budgets in a row. But you also have to have enough foresight to look ahead and say we've got sum extra here -- we need to start investing in West Virginia with some of this money. That's not what's being done now. As governor, I'll be able to do that. As we invest in West Virginia, in creating these jobs, we'll have more income that we can put back in West Virginia and its road and other problems we have in West Virginia.
4 -- One of former Gov. Joe Manchin's major platform issues was education reform. While much was discussed, no wide-ranging changes to the way we educate our children have been made in the recent past. What are your plans when it comes to education reform?
I tell you, the mistake they all made was they didn't listen to the professionals. They didn't listen to the teachers and the school service personnel as to what things needed to be done to improve our West Virginia education system. We need to start respecting our educators and treating them like the professionals they are. We need to start listening to them when we talk about reforms. And if you listen to them, they'll tell you things they need. One, we need more planning and more collaboration. They need more time to teach, more time to think, more time to talk with each other. Every classroom is different. They can give us ideas that we need to improve our education system. I would propose and have a monthly online chat meeting with professional educators and school service personnel, seeking their input on how we can improve our West Virginia school systems.
Then, we need to look at improving technology. Now, everyone talks about technology, but technology, right now, we don't have broadband in every school, which we need. We don't have people on the side to show everyone how to use the technology we have. We have smart boards there and boxes and teachers don't know how to use them, and if they break, there's no one there to fix them. So you've got to have functional technology. That's part of your plan. Then, you've got to look at getting our teacher pay competitive with our surrounding states. We've got to attract the brightest, the youngest and retain those in West Virginia to keep them in West Virginia. So we're going to have to come forth with looking at a way to get those salaries competitive, such as multi-year pay raises like we proposed in the House last session. We've got to start down that road of investing more in West Virginia's education system. My dad was killed in a coal mine accident before I was born. I was raised by my grandparents. We were poor. Worked in a nursery. Didn't have any running water. I remember catching rain water to take a bath in. But I remember also that bus driver, at the bottom of the hill, blowing the horn to make sure I got to school on time. I remember the cooks at school putting back extra milk for me to make sure I had milk and extra food to eat because they knew how poor we were. And I remember them working with me to make sure I got a good education. And I think, had it not been for that public education system, I wouldn't be sitting here today, the way I was brought up, there was no way I could have made it. I went in the Army, spent two years in the Army. Then I used the G.I. bill and worked a lot of odd jobs to get through college and law school and used the education I used in West Virginia. And now I want to give back. I want to give back to the state that's done so much for me. That's why I'm in this race -- to make West Virginia a better place.
(How do you feel abut the concept of charter schools?)
I'm opposed to charter schools. They're wrong for West Virginia. The way West Virginia is laid out geographically, what we tried to do in the Legislature was create what's called innovation zones, to move in certain areas to expand the public education system. I think as West Virginia is laid out, if we would get a full scale charter school in West Virginia, it would take away from the public education system -- that same public education system that put me where I am today. And I think any time you're talking about an issue that will take away from the public education system, we need to stay away from it.
5 -- We are constantly being told, and are witnessing every day, the far-reaching impacts of drug abuse. What will you do as governor to address the epidemic, and do you have any specific plans for interdiction efforts?
The House passed a supplemental putting $10 million into that program. It didn't pass. As governor, I'll get it passed. It needed to be passed. We had a surplus last year in excess of $200 million. And over half of that is still laying there, unappropriated, wasn't used at all to address problems like that in West Virginia. Again, I go back to the situation where we have just for years said keep putting back, keep putting back, and that's left out a lot of these programs and things we could have addressed in West Virginia. You've got to maintain fiscal responsibility. And you've got to maintain your Rainy Day funds. But it's like any business -- if you put back more or don't spend what you have to improve your business and to improve the state, to improve conditions, working conditions, family conditions, then you're wasting that golden opportunity to use the fact that we have an increase surplus to use that money to help West Virginia. That's what's not happening now. And it won't happen unless I'm elected governor. I can do both. I can balance that budget. I can maintain that Rainy Day, and I can use that extra money to help West Virginia. And that's what's not occurring. That's why I'm running for governor.
Please highlight the key points of your platform for governor.
I think you've covered a lot of the key points. There's a direct comparison between me and some of the other candidates. And why I have the experience but not been around answering to special interests. I also represent change. I represent both things. This is why I believe I'm the best candidate running for governor and would ask the people to support me for that reason. The way I grew up, the conditions I grew up in, my background -- they all make me who I am. That's what I think sets me apart and why I'm asking the people to elect me governor.
I think we talked about some of my platforms. My focus will be on small business, encouraging small businesses to make new hires, to put West Virginians back to work. When we talk about what we do for the big headline businesses, that bring 300, or 400, 500 jobs in -- that's not the backbone of West Virginia business. I think that's good, but if they don't fall through when they promise to create 500 jobs and we don't see 500 jobs, everything we've given them, we should take back. We can't keep putting those kinds of incentives out there and not getting the reward for it.
We need to focus on our small businesses. That's why I say no payroll tax for a year for small businesses if they hire a new employee. That will grow our economy. That will put West Virginians back to work. That's part of my jobs plan. We need to focus on creating jobs.
Education, we went through that part of the plan. I I also think we need to address infrastructure. We went through that part of it. Technology, we went through that.
What I'm saying is West Virginia needs a leader who knows how to get the job done. I know how to get the job done, know how to deal with complex problems like Marcellus shale, OPEB, get those issues addressed, get those behind us. As speaker of the House, for example, I opened up a system that was dominated by special interests, made it more transparent. You up there reporting know it's much easier to follow the House now. You're online. You can see what the House is doing. Also, I listened to my members. Each of the members of the House were elected by the people of their district to represent that district. They know that district better than anyone, so we listened to the members of the House as I put my agenda out there with them. It's our agenda. And, as governor, as a leader, that's what you need to do. You need to build consensus, listen to the people that work for you, take their advice and put it to work for West Virginia.