By Brittany Erskine
Rick Thompson grew up in poverty and experienced the generosity of West Virginians first hand. Teachers, bus drivers, cooks and others all stepped up to help him and his family.
"I want to be governor because I want to give back," he said.
Thompson is one of six Democrats running for governor in the May 14 primary election. This year's special gubernatorial election is to fill the remaining term of former Gov. Joe Manchin, who was elected to the U.S. Senate last year to fill the vacancy left by the death of Sen. Robert C. Byrd.
The 58-year-old Wayne County resident has been an attorney for 30 years and is a former assistant prosecutor in Wayne County. He served one term in the House of Delegates in 1980-1982, and was re-elected to the House in 2000. He has served as House speaker since 2007.
"There's a lot I want to do," Thompson said. "We have a lot of West Virginians out of work, and we need to put them back to work. I believe I can do that."
West Virginia's unemployment rate in March was 9.7 percent, down from 10.3 percent in February.
To help reduce the unemployment rate, Thompson said he would like to explore incentives such as giving small businesses a one-year break on paying payroll taxes for each new hire.
Thompson also wants to review the incentives West Virginia gives to larger companies.
"If they're not producing like they promised, and creating jobs, we need to take those benefits back and use that for our small businesses to create these jobs," he said. "If it's not working we shouldn't be wasting our money there, we should be using it somewhere else."
Thompson did not suggest any specific companies that are not fulfilling their promises, or any whose tax benefits could be revoked by the state.
Fixing and repairing secondary roads is another way Thompson wants to create jobs and get people back to work. Repairing the state's highways would also make it "nicer for driving around and without hitting pot holes."
Thompson was endorsed by the West Virginia Education Association and West Virginia Chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. He wants teachers to be treated "like the professionals they are."
"We need to start listening to our teachers," he said. "Seek their input when we start talking about education reforms."
Thompson said teachers don't have enough time to plan or to collaborate with one another. These "restraints and mandates" are holding the state's education system back, he said.
"Too many things are just dictated," he said, adding that teachers need more flexibility because each class is different.
Citing the recently passed multiyear pay raise package, Thompson said the state could continue to move the education system forward, become competitive with other states and help border counties. The increase would also help the state in recruiting and retaining teachers.
The pay package included $1,488 for teachers and $500 for school workers.
Thompson said legislation regulating Marcellus shale natural gas development should be left to a special session. A regulator package failed to clear the Legislature during this year's regular session.
"The best way to do that is not when you have 1,800 bills floating around," he said.
"We need to get all those people together, with some leadership, and get them talking and figure out what we can do and we need to go in a special session and pass a comprehensive Marcellus shale legislation," he said. "We don't need to piece meal it here and there. We need to get on it and address it, because it has tremendous potential for West Virginia."
Developing the Marcellus field, which stretches from West Virginia to New York, is expected to generate millions in tax revenues and provide thousands of jobs over the next couple of decades.
Thompson also said the House had a "very good bill there" this past session to address an estimated $8 billion gap in West Virginia's post-employment benefits, or OPEB, liability. These non-pension costs are mostly for retiree health coverage.
The House bill proposed taking the state's current $110 million annual subsidy for retiree health benefits and adding $95 million per year starting in 2016. The $95 million would have come from personal income tax collections and currently is being used to pay off old workers' compensation claims. The proposal also called for taking $250 million from the state's Rainy Day fund.
"It's because of where I've been and what I've done that I understand the needs and I really fight for working families," Thompson said. "The state's ability to help me and how the people helped me, I think I understand that and I want to bring that to the table when I'm governor."