By Jim Workman
West Virginia Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. —Industry leaders in natural gas throughout West Virginia have “a friend” in the governor’s office.
That was the message Mike Hall, chief of staff for Gov. Jim Justice, delivered to attendees of the 2018 Winter Meeting of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia this week at the Marriott Town Center Hotel in Charleston.
Hall emphasized the governor’s agenda run parallel to theirs in many capacities.
“We want to advance the industry so (the state) can get out of your way and let you do what you do,” Hall added. “The governor is with you and has his eye on your industry. He wants to help.”
Justice has been in the resource retraction industry as a businessman prior to his election as governor, Hall said.
“He understands the industry,” Hall said.
Modernization of natural gas laws is of extreme importance, Hall said.
“Our challenge in West Virginia is we can’t just change property tax laws without changing the state constitution,” Hall said. “The taxes affect our economy greatly.
“We’ve spent many hours on it, with people from your industry as well as legislators.”
Hall pointed to Iowa as an example.
“They phased (equipment and machinery taxes) out in Iowa and saw a difference over a 10-year period,” Hall said. “We are hoping to phase it out in West Virginia over a seven-year period.”
Officials from Iowa reported that more manufacturers began to look at locating there following its phase out, Hall said.
Hall added the hope in the Mountain State is to put more favorable tax laws on the ballot for voters to decide.
Counties that would lose monies due to loss of property taxes would get their funds replaced, as much as an estimated $140 million, from the state’s general revenue budget.
“That would be put in the constitution to help make those counties whole,” Hall said. “That’s why they’re willing to go along with it.
“There’s a high level of confidence we’re going to get this through.”
The issue of co-tenancy, which would allow a majority of rights owners to vote to accept a lease for drilling, is also actively being discussed, Hall reported.
“We are looking at bills, being aware of the surrounding states and more activity there,” he said. “We are working hard with leaders in the legislature.”
Hall also reminded attendees that Justice feels very strongly about education, which ultimately leads to a better equipped workforce. Justice observes education from an intellectual and emotional manner as the girls basketball coach at Greenbrier East High School, Hall reminded the crowd.
“He’s in the schools,” Hall said. “He sees what happens.”
A bill being discussed this legislative session that would allow for free community and technical college is important because an equipped workforce is a critical need in the state.
“It’s a lot more than (just free community and technical college),” Hall said. “We have students that go to four-year colleges and do extremely well. But we also have students that maybe that’s not their path. Often, kids get lost in the shuffle. The bill proposes a pathway to an associate’s degree that one may be able to earn while still in high school, perhaps with a thirteenth year, providing a financial path for them to go to community and technical colleges.
“It’s an important bill,” Hall added.
Hall described Justice as “an amazing visionary,” whose leadership caused last year’s road bond to pass not only through legislation, but to a landside victory in November in the election.
“As a legislator myself for 23 years in the House and Senate, I was totally surprised that we were able to get a bill through last year and have people vote on last November, to do our road improvements,” Hall said. “That was totally (Justice’s) vision that pushed us.”
Going from an announced $500 million budget deficit to a balanced budget in less than 12 months was also a landmark victory for the state, Hall added.
Hall served as Senate finance chairman before accepting his current post as Chief of Staff.
“To my amazement, shock and absolute delight, our finance guys came to us in December and said we could have a balanced budget this year,” said Hall. “I’ll tell you how that happened: the legislature and the governor held down spending for four years; the natural growth and revenue has overtaken that, plus we had a good year last year with our investments. Our West Virginia Investment Management Board manages our pensions, and their rate of return last year was 15.6 percent. That was No. 1 in the nation. As a result, we had a balanced budget, based on earnings, revenue growth and surplus money – we got through it.”
“The optimism that many people feel in this state now is directly due to (Justice’s) leadership,” Hall said.