Kessler says WV needs more tax money
By David Gutman, Political Reporter SAM OWENS | Gazette-Mail
Jeff Kessler, Democratic candidate for governor of West Virginia, talks to members of the Charleston Gazette-Mail editorial board Thursday in the newsroom. Kessler is the minority leader of the state Senate and previously served as Senate president and chairman of that chamber’s Judiciary Committee.
It’s going to take increased state spending and investment for West Virginia to turn around its flailing economy, state Sen. Jeff Kessler, a Democratic candidate for governor, said Thursday. And the money for that spending is going to have to come from higher taxes.
“You can’t cut your way to prosperity, and someone needs to raise the ugly T-word, which is taxes and revenue,” Kessler, the Senate minority leader, said.
“There are two sides to everything, and I think we’ve cut all the fat we can trim.”
State funding for higher education is down nearly 30 percent over the past eight years, Kessler noted. And, for the first time in recent memory, the government will cut funding to K-12 education this year. It’s been more than two years since Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways said the government would need $1 billion to repair and maintain the state’s roads.
The only action the Legislature has taken toward funding that shortfall has been to require an audit of the Division of Highways, which will cost an estimated $500,000 and may or may not find any savings.
“Everyone knew what the answer was: You need money; you need taxes or tolls,” Kessler said.
“No one wants to deal with it — wait until the election cycle’s over. You’ve got another election cycle coming up and no one wants to talk about the truth — we just need revenue.”
Kessler, in a Gazette-Mail editorial board meeting Thursday, had several proposals to increase revenue.
The most concrete was a hike in the tobacco tax of $1 per pack, which he said could raise $100 million. West Virginia’s tobacco tax is lower than all of its neighboring states, except for Virginia. If the tax were raised $1, he said, it would still be lower than the national average and the tax in Ohio, Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Kessler proposed using about $15 million in tobacco tax revenue to fund either free or assisted community college for West Virginia students.
“I don’t care if it’s a teacher’s aide, a nursing home assistant, if it’s paralegal studies, if it’s a welding assistant, something that shows that they have a marketable skill,” Kessler said. “That’s how you attack building up your workforce; you get them educated.”
Kessler proposed using another $20 million of tobacco tax money to fund more drug treatment centers.
He talked about his own son’s struggle with opioid abuse and, two years ago, being unable to find a spot in a nearby treatment center.
He eventually found a spot, because of good insurance, at a center in Columbus, Ohio.
“There was nowhere to go,” Kessler said. “And why was there nowhere to go? Because there’s no money in the system. Why was there no money in the system? Because we won’t fund it.”
The remaining tobacco tax windfall, Kessler said, would go toward health care — paying for the forthcoming increase in the state’s Medicaid bill or helping with the shortfall in the health insurance program for state employees.
Kessler also proposed raising the taxes on liquor and gasoline. The gas tax, he said, could be raised a few cents when gas prices are low, and then phased out if gas prices increase.
He did not propose reversing recent tax cuts — to the business franchise tax, the corporate income tax and the food tax — that have depleted state revenue by hundreds of millions of dollars over the past several years.
But he didn’t have high praise for those tax cuts, either.
“I don’t see folks falling over themselves to come here to open businesses or to expand. I’m not sure that’s worked,” Kessler said. “How many jobs did it create?”
Kessler proposed a value-added tax on ethane created by the state’s shale gas boom. If that material is piped out of state to be processed, the companies pay the tax. If companies build facilities — like the much ballyhooed but indefinitely stalled cracker plant — to process the ethane in West Virginia, they would get a tax credit.
“I can’t make them build it here,” Kessler said, “but I can certainly make sure that people of this state benefit from it.”
West Virginia’s other big fossil fuel, coal, is not coming back, Kessler said.
“It’s not our salvation. It was never our salvation,” he said. “Many of the politicians have just been sitting there, pounding this drum on the ‘war on coal’ and all we’ve got to do is throw out Obama and get rid of the EPA and everything will come back.”
Kessler touted his SCORE program — Southern Coalfields Organizing and Revitalizing the Economy. It was established last year, to look for ways to diversify coalfield economies, but it was shuttered after the Republican takeover of the Legislature.
“During coal’s heyday, was West Virginia’s economy in the top five, middle five or bottom five?” Kessler asked. “If we win the ‘war on coal,’ will we be top five, middle five, bottom five? If the answer is still bottom five, that isn’t good enough.”
He said Democrats have lost the last two elections in West Virginia because they “didn’t stand for anything” and just counted on the state’s Democratic history to continue to carry the day.
“Just duck, keep your heads low and hope that our registration advantage will take us to the finish line. Didn’t work,” Kessler said. “I’m going to be a Democrat, I’m going to tell them I’m proud of Medicaid expansion.”
He took a few shots at his primary opponent, businessman Jim Justice, whose campaign has been focused on broader themes rather than policy specifics. Kessler repeated his call to debate Justice.
“I’ve yet to truthfully hear what he stands for on anything,” Kessler said. “The people of this state need to hear what your positions are on something.”