CLARKSBURG, W.Va. — Democratic candidate for Governor Jeff Kessler wants to build a diverse economy in West Virginia if he becomes Governor, but says that we all have to face some tough truths if we’re going to do that.
“It’s obvious to me that we’re at a crossroads in this state, and we need to move forward,” Kessler said Thursday on MetroNews-affiliated “The Mike Queen Show” on the AJR News Network.
Kessler said fixing West Virginia’s roads, and raising the revenue to pay for those fixes, will be one of his primary objectives if he wins the Governor’s seat.
“Our roads are crumbling,” said Kessler. “I don’t know how they are in North Central West Virginia, but ours are a mess up here. And what we have done to fix them? What plan do we have?”
Kessler, originally from the Wheeling area, said that fixing the roads means accepting a hard truth: the state needs to raise revenues.
“I don’t care how you cut it,” he said. “You don’t fix roads without cold, hard cash. And we need to raise some revenue to do that.”
Kessler also expressed some support for freshman delegate Patsy Trecost’s (D-Harrison, 48) suggestion to raise the sales tax by one percent for five years.
“That’s a viable option, quite frankly,” Kessler said. “Because if you don’t have revenue, it’s not going to get done.”
Kessler was not a supporter of changing the prevailing wage during the previous session, and plans to highlight his opposition and contrast it with his support of raising the state’s minimum wage when he was Senate President..
“You tell me how a state that, quite frankly, has the lowest per capita income in the country–how it benefits us if we drive our wages down further,” he said.
Perhaps most importantly, Kessler says there is another reality that the state needs to face. Even if the state “wins” the “War on Coal,” Kessler says that it won’t be enough to lift us out of economic doldrums.
“We need to diversify our economy,” said Kessler. “Just to think we can blame it all on Obama and the EPA and if coal comes back our state’s going to prosper? That’s not going to happen.”
Kessler said the state has very little to show for it’s reliance on the coal industry, and can’t make the same mistake now that natural gas is booming in the northern part of the state.
“We are a mineral rich state,” said Kessler. “And what did we do with coal? At the end of the day, now that many of our reserves are depleted–particularly in the southern part of the state–we have nothing to show for it. There’s no opportunity down there.”
Kessler suggested that if the state had put away one percent of the coal severance taxes collected over the past 40 years, we’d have enough money stored away to fix our roads. He suggested following a similar strategy with natural gas to fund the roads system and higher education.
“It is blowing up exponentially in terms of production,” said Kessler. “What we need to do is take a portion of that increased opportunity and wealth and put some of that extra severance dollars in a bank to build a fund that we can actually use to build our roads and diversify our economy.”
Kessler also said state cuts to higher education funding over the past few years are leading to rising tuition costs–calling the cuts “counterproductive” in a state that already has extremely low college attendance rates.
“And what do we do?” Kessler asked rhetorically. “We make it more difficult for our young people to get a college degree because it becomes more expensive.”
Kessler has served in the State Capitol since 1996, when he was appointed by then-Governor Underwood to fill a vacant Senate seat. Kessler and Jim Justice are the only declared candidates for the Democratic party at this point.