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WSAZ - Who's Running: Jeff Kessler

News Article

Location: Charleston, WV

By Michael Hyland

He has a job no one else in West Virginia has ever had, but he's ready to move on.

Democrat Jeff Kessler is the Acting Senate President. It's a position that was created after Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin (D) began acting as governor.

Kessler is one of 14 people running in the special race for governor this year.

"My goal, my vision, is where we're going to be a decade from now," says Kessler.

As Acting Senate President, the Democrat took a role that never existed before and led his chamber through a rocky period filled with a lot of questions and many people looking to take charge. His critics went as far as to question whether the power shift was done legally.

"I don't know that I would call it a power grab of any kind. I think there's a lot of people that may have competing ambitions and wanted to vie for the same opportunities, but a little healthy competition is good for people."

That competition stems in part from the many directions the state could go.

Kessler says the Marcellus Shale is going to be his main priority in the one-year term he's trying to fill.

Lawmakers left Charleston recently without passing a major regulatory bill dealing with the massive natural gas formation.

"Once you start going down that path and get too far into this thing, it'll be harder to come back and change the rules," says Kessler.

He's pushed to start what he calls a "future fund" for Marcellus revenues. He says that would lead to benefits for West Virginians in the form of rebates or tax cuts.

"Could you imagine how rich we'd be in this state had we put a penny or a couple of cents on coal 50 years ago and just sat it in the bank? We'd be the richest state in the country," says Kessler.

The need for money can be seen very clearly in the state's roads.

WSAZ viewer Pat Sharp wrote in to ask Kessler how he sees making the Division of Highways "more efficient and productive."

Kessler says, "I would like to think that you can do things more efficiently, but I'm not so sure you're going to do it much more cheaply."

Gov. Tomblin recently vetoed a multimillion-dollar plan that would raise DMV fees to pay for roads.

Kessler supported the fee hikes.

"I don't know where we're going to come up with the additional revenues if we don't raise fees or tax somewhere," says Kessler.

He says the federal government should "look at" raising the gas tax and funnel the money back to states.

"The biggest complaint I get as a legislator, and always have, is the condition of the roads, particularly over the last few years. When we froze the gas tax a few years [ago], it was probably not a smart thing to do," says Kessler.

Speaking of freezes, this year the state lifted a freeze on pay raises, giving increases to various groups, including teachers.

The unions had been lobbying hard, saying the state is losing good teachers to better-paying states.

"Increasing the salaries of beginning teachers, that's important. By giving that additional money, we're going to raise the salaries of beginning teachers, those are the ones we need to attract," says Kessler.

Kessler is running against five other Democrats for his party's nomination. There eight Republicans seeking their party's nomination as well. The primary is set for May 14.

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