By David Gutman
The Charleston Gazette-Mail
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The three Democratic candidates to be the next governor of West Virginia debated for the first, and likely only time on Saturday with a mostly cordial discussion of the state budget, energy industry and drug epidemic, with the few jabs coming primarily from the frontrunner, businessman Jim Justice.
Saying the state needs a “marketer in chief,” Justice, a coal and agriculture magnate and owner of The Greenbrier resort, promised a “rocket jobs ride you’ll never believe,” but also evaded several questions.
The event, dubbed a forum, not a debate, was organized by the state Democratic Party and held at the Charleston Civic Center at 11 a.m. Saturday morning, a time unlikely to draw a large viewership. It was hosted by West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Ashton Marra.
With the state facing a budget deficit in the hundreds of millions of dollars, candidates were asked what specific spending cuts or tax increases they would make to fill the gap.
State Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler called for a $1-per-pack increase in the tobacco tax, a proposal he has long championed, which passed the Senate this year but was a virtual non-starter in the House.
“Anybody that’s up here on this stage that thinks we can fix this budget deficit without raising some additional revenue is not telling you the truth,” Kessler said, calling for an end to the repeated cuts to higher education of the last several years.
Former U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin called for a “bottom-to-top” review of government spending before any tax increases are considered. He proposed two minor, specific changes he would make, but nothing close to the scale of what would be required to get the state budget back in the black.
“There are going to be some hard choices,” Goodwin said. “There are going to be some easy choices as well.”
Without naming Justice, Goodwin then went on the attack, saying he wouldn’t spend “$25 million to build a sports complex down at the Greenbrier” or $2 million to sponsor The Greenbrier Classic golf tournament.
Justice didn’t take the veiled criticism lying down.
“Booth says, ‘I’ll take back the $25 million or whatever it was that was spent on the sports complex,’” Justice said. “I spent the money on the sports complex, it was my money.”
The truth lies somewhere in between. The complex at The Greenbrier, which was built to draw the New Orleans Saints training camp, was paid for by Justice.
But he took advantage of a state tourism tax credit to do so, one that was extended and expanded just before the Saints deal was announced.
Because of that legislation, which passed Kessler’s Senate after lobbying by then-Democratic Party Chairman Larry Puccio (now a senior consultant to Justice’s campaign), the sports complex is eligible for up to $9.5 million in tax credits over 10 years. The tax credit legislation was also expanded specifically to make Justice’s yet-to-be-built Greenbrier Medical Institute eligible for millions more in tax credits.
On the budget crisis, Justice offered no concrete solutions. Instead, he said the way out was faster job growth, which would lead to increased revenue.
He gave no specific prescription for that job growth, but pointed to his business record as proof that he could do it.
“Do we have the imagination, do we have the creativity to pull us out of this mess?” Justice asked. “I can turn this thing around, and it’s not something that’s going to take forever.”
Senate President Bill Cole, the Republican candidate for governor, in a separate interview with Marra, talked about running the state government as a business and said the state could look at privatizing the state Public Employees Insurance Agency.
With southern West Virginia’s economy in tatters, Justice said he was “not one to give up on coal,” but added that the region should be doing better in tourism, which would require improving its roads.
“It’s got to be done somehow,” he said, leaving the somehow unsaid.
Goodwin called for a “sort of GI Bill for miners,” to help them get education and training and said the federal government needs to help.
President Barack Obama’s administration has offered to help, proposing billions of dollars to clean up abandoned mine sites and shore up miners’ pension plans.
Kessler said he would “fully embrace” that idea, called the Power Plus Plan, but that is something that is outside the control of the governor’s office.
The Republican-controlled Congress will not pass Obama’s budget, which contains the funds, and even West Virginia’s congressional delegation has been cool to the proposal.
“We need to have somebody that tells folks the truth,” Kessler said, repeating a theme of his. “Coal will have a prominent role to play, but it will never be dominant again.”
That drew an attack from Justice at his next opportunity, during a response on natural gas.
“About every comment that he makes toward coal is a white flag,” Justice said of Kessler. He had criticism for Goodwin as well, after Goodwin talked about attracting industries to use the state’s natural gas and converting the state’s fleet of vehicles to run on natural gas.
“I don’t understand what Booth just said,” Justice said, and then used a colorful metaphor to call for simpler solutions. “If you ask me how many cows are in the field, I’m going to count the cows, I wouldn’t try to count the legs and divide by four. Just count the cows.”
Throughout the debate, the few attacks from Goodwin and Kessler tended to be subtler.
Goodwin said in his opening statement that “We needed more of these events, with all three candidates because this process is a serious job interview.”
Justice has repeatedly declined to debate the other two candidates, saying that Saturday’s forum was the only such event in which he would participate. Justice has also been a registered Republican in the past and donated to Republican candidates, a fact hinted at by Kessler in his opening statement.
“I’m a Democrat from the day I turned 18,” he said. “I’m a Democrat by conviction, not of convenience.”
On gas development, Kessler touted his “future fund” which he got passed two years ago and intends to save some of the gas revenue for future infrastructure and education spending. But, because of changes made to the legislation in the House of Delegates, no money has yet been deposited in the fund.
“I don’t want, 50 years from now when our gas is gone, to be as broke as today when the coal is gone,” he said.
Questions about fossil fuels dovetailed into one about climate change.
The House of Delegates this year passed a bill that would have blocked new state science standards that require students to be taught about man’s impact on the climate. That bill was changed in the Senate and eventually vetoed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.
Goodwin and Kessler both were largely against such legislative action, although Kessler spoke in stronger terms.
“I do believe that climate change is real and I don’t think the world is flat, and we need to come to that realization as well, as a state,” Kessler said.
Goodwin said that “thousands of scientists have spoken on that issue and I’m not qualified to say anything against them.”
Justice did not respond specifically to the climate change question, saying only, “I have no problem with a productive debate on any subject, whatever it may be.”
Cole, in his interview with Marra, said that kids should be allowed to decide whether man-made climate change is “real.” Scientists are all but unanimous that it is.
In a discussion of the state’s drug epidemic, Justice again went on the attack.
“Mr. Goodwin talks about his prosecution of drug issues and acts like, and is actually very boastful of that,” he said, calling for drugs to be treated as a health issue, not a criminal one. “We’re not getting anywhere; how can we be boastful?”
Goodwin responded: “I put drug dealers in jail, I didn’t put drug addicts in jail.”
All three candidates called for increased drug treatment facilities.
Justice offered no advice on how to increase the availability of treatment.
Goodwin said, “we do have to fund it, but there’s money in the system to do it,” without specifying where the money was.
Kessler spoke about being unable to find in-state drug treatment for his oldest son, who was arrested in 2014 on federal drug charges.
He disagreed with Goodwin.
“There are not enough treatment facilities in the state because there’s no money in the system,” he said, calling for increased funding from an increased tobacco or alcohol tax.
Justice, in a response on broadband Internet, took issue with Kessler’s repeated references to the tobacco tax.
“I promise you that raising the cigarette tax on every single thing that we’re doing is not going to cover everything,” he said.
The winner of the Democratic primary will face Cole, R-Mercer, in the November election in what promises to be a contentious campaign. The Republican Governor’s Association last week announced a $600,000 ad buy to support Cole, the first in what will likely be a multi-million dollar effort.
Marra asked all three candidates to respond to the most likely Republican lines of attack, should they be the nominee.
Justice has had repeated issues with unpaid business debts, mine safety fines and back taxes. Soon after he launched his campaign last year, the state Republican party launched a website highlighting those issues.
Justice said that he has never had a company file for bankruptcy, which he said would be the easy way out.
“Jim Justice will make mistakes,” he said. “I promise you that every single obligation that I ever have will be fulfilled.
“I’m the only candidate that can beat Bill Cole,” he added in his closing statement.
Goodwin was appointed federal prosecutor by President Barack Obama — supremely unpopular in West Virginia — a point that Republicans will reinforce ceaselessly should he be the nominee.
“I believe that people will look past that,” Goodwin said. “I mean, for goodness sake, President Obama is not going to be in the White House when I take office as governor. We need to move past partisanship.”
Kessler has not been bashful in talking about raising taxes and the state coal industry’s dismal outlook, neither of which are popular positions.
He said that “you need to tell people the truth,” and that he would highlight the Republican agenda that he has fought, largely unsuccessfully, since the GOP took over the Legislature two years ago.
“It has been an awful attack on people, on families, on teachers, on workers, on labor on unions, on everybody that didn’t have a last name named Inc.,” he said. “I will make sure that the people of this state know that the Republican agenda is radical and reckless and wrong.”
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