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The Intelligencer - "Sunday Sit-Down': Today's Guest: W.Va. Acting Senate President Jeff Kessler

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Editor's note: State Sen. Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, has become one of West Virginia's most powerful elected officials, now serving as acting president of the state Senate. The Sunday News-Register sat down with the senator to talk about the upcoming governor's race and the current legislative session, as well as what impact the Marcellus Shale could have on the state.

* Thank you, Sen. Kessler, for taking time today to speak with our readers. First off, there's a special election for governor set for later this year to fill the unexpired term of former Gov. Manchin. You've announced your intentions to run for the office in 2012. Will you change your plans and instead run for governor this year?

Kessler: I haven't made an absolute final decision on that yet ... but don't be surprised to see my name on the gubernatorial ballot this year. ... When I took this job I did pledge to my colleagues that for the next 60 days, I would be giving 100 percent of my efforts toward running the Senate, that I wouldn't be using this podium as a campaign platform or anything of that nature. ... If (the election) is sometime after the (session ends in March,) we'll take a look at it, but while we're in session I've committed that my singular focus will be in running the Senate, and I intend to keep my commitment to my colleagues.

... (The people's right to vote) is why I'm sitting in this office now. ... When Senate President Tomblin went to act as governor under the constitution, it created a void ... that under our old rules permitted the governor to pick a presiding officer as pro-tem. The prospects that that could have lasted the entirety of the 80th Legislative Session ... under (Tomblin's) interpretation of the statute, that (an election) didn't have to happen until November 2012 ... we would have been effectively controlled by the governor's office. I felt that violated the independent branch of the Senate, (as) you would have had (Tomblin) controlling both the executive department and one of the two branches of the Legislature. So we felt we needed to elect an alternative presiding officer when (Tomblin) was (in the governor's office), because he did indicate early on that he would be directing his singular duties and focus (on the governor's office) and would not be participating in the Senate. ... We would have had a Senate president who wasn't going to participate and a pro-tem who was a hand-picked replacement. And if you have the ability to pick the replacement, name the chairs, name the committee members, you effectively control the agenda. ... I just felt that violated the sanctity of the separation of powers between the branches of government. ...

I felt strongly then that the senators out on the floor should have the right to vote. My opposition - I never really had a candidate against me, it wasn't that I was running against this one or that one - my resistance came from (those in power who) didn't want (a Senate) election at all. They wanted an appointment. Of course they wanted someone who would get appointed by the governor, who they felt would keep everything he had in place, not change anything. That may have been OK if the governor had come out early on and said 'I'm going to have an election' ... and issued a resolution saying we're going to have an election (soon,) but when we're talking two ... years down the road, that's way too long to sit without an elected presiding officer. ... It's the fundamental core of democracy that you elect your leaders.

(As for a gubernatorial election,) people say they have election fatigue, they're tired, it costs too much ... I think all those excuses are nonsense. Back in November I had the opportunity to speak at a Veteran's Day dedication at the Moundsville City Building. ... I had the occasion to meet a little girl by the name of Mya Berisford, who happened to be the 2-year-old daughter of Spc. Julian Berisford, who had died the previous November in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. You tell that little girl freedom costs too much, that the right to vote costs too much. I'm not going to do it. I can't do it.

* If you do run this year or in 2012, how important is it to you that you might be the only Democrat on the ballot from Northern West Virginia?

Kessler: I think I would do very well (in this area), and I would expect to. I think I can also reach out to other areas of the state as well, particularly the Eastern Panhandle. They feel oftentimes like they're the orphan child of the state too, they're so far removed from Charleston where all the decisions seem to be made. So they feel a little kinship between the two panhandles, perhaps. I think they often have the same challenges with border issues with Virginia and Maryland just as we face with Ohio and Pennsylvania.

I've found as I've traveled around the state that our viewpoint is not unique. You go to Huntington and they'll tell you the same thing, everything happens in Charleston. We're neglected. ... It seems no matter where you go there's the perception that everything centers around Charleston and as the hub of government, that's probably true.

I think I could do well in the north, I think I could do well throughout the state. I just left a meeting with the Mingo County delegation on Mingo County Day, with a roomful of 50 or 60 Mingo County elected officials who are very supportive of the efforts I've had in getting here. ... They feel I've reached out to them and share a lot of their same concerns. I think I can build bridges everywhere, truthfully.

* On to the issues. You've been acting Senate president for about a month now. What are your thoughts so far on the transition and the new responsibilities you have been given? What's different from your previous leadership role as head of the Judiciary Committee?

Kessler: On Judiciary you were just focused on policy issues. ... In this position you're looking ... at both ends, the policy and the financial issues. There's two major committees - Judiciary and Finance - we set the policy in Judiciary and they spend the money in Finance. But in this role I've got to blend the two. Every time you establish a policy that you're going to be tougher on crime, guess what, there's a consequence. The more people you throw in jail, the more the city and county officials that have to pay the regional jail fees are going to complain. So you have to try to balance both to make sure the budget is balanced and that you enact laws that have a positive effect on people.

(The new position) also gives you a bigger stage in some respects to get out the message of what you think West Virginia can do and how you can enact policies that can really help take the state to the next level, which is my goal.

* If acting Gov. Tomblin is not elected to the governor's post later this year, what will that do to your new position in the Senate? Will you revert to your former post as Judiciary chair?

Kessler: (Tomblin's) still the Senate president, and my position as acting president is a conditional position created uniquely under the circumstances that I only serve in this capacity ... during those periods when the president is acting as governor. If he would not prevail, he'd come back here and I'd be kicked to the curb. I would not expect to move back into (the Judiciary chairman's role). ...

I've served since 2003 as Judiciary chair, and it's time for some young blood. Sen. Corey Palumbo (D-Kanawha) is a smart, young attorney who's paid his dues, it's his turn. I really have no interest in returning to be Judiciary chair. ...

When Sen. Byrd died it put into motion a series of changes, and with Sen. Manchin's subsequent election to the U.S. Senate that created an opening here. ... We're doing well, we've made some progressive and important changes in our state, but we still have a long way to go. But I'm confident that we're at a golden age of West Virginia, that frankly we have a small window of opportunity to do some really wonderful things in this state, to really make this state over the next decade be one of the fastest growing states in the nation.

If you look at our surrounding states, most of them are broke, they're borrowing money ... we're looking at a budgetary surplus, we've got $600 million in the rainy day fund, we've not had to borrow one dime for our unemployment fund, and we talk about this OPEB debt ... which is big, $5-$6 billion, but we had the same thing staring at us a few years ago with workers' comp. We put our nose to the grindstone and worked it out, paid it down aggressively, and it's going to be paid off. ... We'll do the same with this.

But most of our surrounding states have (billions) they've owe in unemployment they've borrowed from the feds alone. ... That's going to make our unemployment more competitive than theirs. ... Our unemployment rates (for businesses) are going to be more competitive than our neighbors (and) our energy prices are going to be lower and in abundance. ... I think we are truly poised as we come out of this recession ... (that surrounding states) are going to need the same thing - energy, and we're sitting on the mother lode of it. We've got coal reserves, we've got gas opportunities, and everyone's going to need what we have. And my degree in economics from West Liberty tells me Adam Smith was right: it's still a matter of supply and demand. They've got the demand, we've got the supply, and they're going to have to pay for it. So we have an opportunity to increase revenue significantly. I think we're really poised to have a breakout decade.

* One more question on Gov. Tomblin. In your opinion, does the fact that he's the governor and also a candidate for governor hurt his agenda in both the Senate and the House?

Kessler: I hope not. I hope politics and personalities will be put aside and we'll do what's right for the people of West Virginia. I do believe we ... have a window of opportunity to do some really great things in this state. I don't want to be the one accused of dragging it down by playing politics. I would hope my colleagues across the Well would not, either, and I don't expect they will. I've always taken the position that if we do good things there will be plenty of credit to share, and if we screw it up because of personal ambitions, then there will be plenty of blame to share, as well. I prefer to share the former over the latter.

* What is your working relationship with House Speaker Rick Thompson - another possible candidate for governor.

Kessler: It's always been good, I've never had a problem with the speaker, we've been friends and friendly throughout the years and I expect that to continue. ... I expect we'll have a warm and cordial relationship and hopefully we'll be able to get things done.

* On to the issues: Education reform. In the past, the Senate has gone along with former Gov. Joe Manchin's recommendations to overhaul the state's education system. Much of what's been proposed so far this year is the same. Just what is it going to take to get school reform legislation through the House of Delegates? Do you believe you're going to have to water down any bill to get House approval?

Kessler: I would hope not. I've had some discussions since I've been in this office ... with education leaders to try to ... hear their take. I'm optimistic that many of the reforms that we're talking about doing we'll be able to do. That we'll be able to increase the school calendar, we'll be able to increase the school contract dates, we'll be able to increase achievement levels and reduce dropout rates and have some objective criteria.

Look, I understand our teachers are underpaid, and I'm prepared to suggest they get a significant raise over a period of time. But it also needs to be tied to measurable objective criteria and outcomes. Because at the end of the day, if we're to ... bring employers to the state, we need a qualified, educated, dedicated workforce. It's got to begin with education. Half the teachers in the state are going to be retired in the next decade. How are we going to replace them? It's going to be hard to do with wages that are substandard to our surrounding states. We spend 60-70 percent of our general revenue budget on education ... and then we train all our kids ... and they turn around and leave. There's no opportunities for them here, because they can take a job (in a neighboring state) and then you're in a position where you've wasted a lot of your resources. We've lost probably an entire generation or two of our kids that have left the state. Quite frankly, at the end of the day, name a business that could take 60-70 percent of its capital - in this case, human capital - flush it down the toilet for two generations and wonder why you're last. ... We've got to keep our kids here.

So I have no problem in looking at a proposal to give (teachers) incentive pay, if you can tie it in some degree to objective criteria ... things you can measure and show. ... I'm not going to say we're going to have the best paid teachers in the world, but if we're really going to compete, to keep our kids here, we've got to have the best school systems and the best teachers, and that can happen but I think we need to tie it to outcomes. I've found some willingness to do that with the teachers' unions ... they're not averse to that.

* In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge facing the state?

Kessler: The biggest problem we have is a function of population, we don't have enough people. ... We need to change that, we need to draw people here and keep our young people here. There are going to be enormous opportunities in the education section ... there's no reason why we can't be bringing people here to work.

The energy sector, the same thing with the Marcellus Shale, we're going to be looking at enormous job opportunities there, and the opportunity to create wealth in this state. I just want (workers) to move here, raise your kids here, have children here, send them to school here. I don't care if they come from Oklahoma or Texas or North Carolina ... I love to have migration. ... In the past we've had a tendency with our natural resources to allow all the money to go out of state. I don't want to see that happen. I think it's important that we hire local workers, but I don't think that with the job growth I'm anticipating ... with some of these energy markets, particularly oil and gas, we're going to need new people to move in. We can increase our population, which is important, and if we do that it will help turn the tide. ...

With energy ... some of the reports I've read is that there might be billions of dollars coming into the state. I'd like to see ... that we create some sort of an endowment fund, a West Virginia futures fund ... similar to what they did in Alaska with the oil pipeline. ... There's no reason we can't do something similar to that. ... While the rest of the states are losing money ... we could actually be saving money. ... That too would send a ... positive signal throughout the nation that wow, West Virginia is really special. When you do that you create that perception and that will overcome all this 'judicial hellhole' and those negative perceptions we've seen, and you'll see West Virginia grow by leaps and bounds.

Also, simple things like having an intermediate appellate court ... I think we can pass it this year. It would send a huge signal to the business community that West Virginia truly is open for business.

* Marcellus Shale. West Virginia University released a report showing the natural gas drilling industry created 7,600 jobs and contributed almost $300 million in wages and benefits in the state in 2009. Based on those numbers, what are your thoughts on how the state should regulate the industry? And what concerns do you have with the current practices used by the drilling industry to extract natural gas?

Kessler: I think horizontal drilling is the wave of the future ... there's no way to access the Marcellus Shale if you don't do the hydraulic drilling. Traditional vertical drilling is not going to work to be able to access the level and volume of gas ... that we have. There are obviously environmental concerns, as we all drink the water ... so we're not going to let that happen. We're going to make sure (drilling) is done fairly, and regulated fairly - not overregulated.

... I've seen the road damage, I've seen a lot of the nuisances that occur, the dust. ... It's our goal to try to establish ... a reasonable template of regulatory oversight to make sure (drilling) is done cleanly, efficiently and in an environmentally safe manner with minimal disruption to the citizens that live around it. It can be done. ... The troubles, some of the nuisances and disruptions that occurred in Wetzel County, they aren't unique to Wetzel County. They are the same problems you're going to see ... wherever it goes. So I say let's get it right. We may be seeing it first, and I may have been ahead of the curve when I introduced the natural gas resource highway bill because I knew there were problems. You can't have these huge rigs going out on these cow pasture roads that were meant for horse and buggy. Now you've got 18-wheelers going out there that can't navigate around the hairpin turns, that end up over the hill, the roads just weren't meant for it. ... The roads are going to get damaged.

... On the plus side of that, I do think (drilling) brings the opportunity for jobs (and for an increase) in the tax base. Not only with just the production and the gas itself, it's the spinoff things. One of the byproducts is ethanol. ... Ethanol is used in plastics and used in chemical manufacturing. Given how we're situated in the Northern Panhandle with Bayer, PPG and other chemical facilities ... we're sitting on the mother lode of gas in our backyard. We've got a pipeline that goes from New Martinsville all the way to ... the Bayer and DuPont plants in South Charleston that we can take the byproduct - we land one of these "cracker" facilities as we're trying to do to separate the byproduct - we have a market for it immediately with the ethanol that can go right to Bayer and PPG and other derivative industries that can perhaps locate in those sites that are now operating at less than ... full occupancy. ... That could truthfully in my view revitalize the entire manufacturing and chemical industry in the Northern Panhandle. ... We're not only talking about just gas, we're talking about the entire manufacturing and chemical industry going through the roof. That's our hope and goal and I think it can happen.

* Sticking with natural gas: Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon said recently that natural gas will be bigger than coal for West Virginia. What impact can this industry have on the state's budget and economy?

Kessler: I think it's huge. The severance tax alone is going to create a bigger pool of money ... to pay off our debt quicker. If we had our debt all paid off ... then that leaves $200 million to $300 million extra a year for new programs or to increase pay scales for teachers.

... We're going to have more money ... to our county and local governments also, some of them may get more than they know how to spend. That's why I'd like to endow some, make sure it doesn't all just go to have statues and new courthouses built everywhere. ... You're going to see a significant amount of new revenue come into the state ... and we need to be prepared to handle that, to pay down the debt we have. I think once that happens we can start to look at expanding programs, particularly education programs. ...

* Final question. Do you see any possibility that metro government will ever make headway in West Virginia?

Kessler: I think it will. There's a more regional approach to things now, particularly as you look at a lot of these (gas) facilities. I think you're going to see (more cooperation between counties), as if we're going to do (a gas byproducts facility) in Marshall County we may have to (partner) with Wetzel County. ... As you start moving across county lines, a lot of the fiefdoms that have maybe grown ... are going to disappear. As the pie gets bigger, and there's more revenue to share and more opportunities out there, then people will be more willing to work across county lines and across city/county lines.

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