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WVU experts weigh in on gubernatorial debate

BECKLEY, W.Va. — West Virginia faces many issues, as the two major party gubernatorial candidates outlined at Tuesday night’s debate in Charleston.

Both the Democratic candidate, Jim Justice, and the Republican candidate, Bill Cole, focused heavily on the state of the economy in West Virginia.

John Deskins, director of the WVU Bureau of Business and Economic Research, said the candidates focused on better education, better training and curbing the drug abuse problem — all of which he believes are important issues that must be addressed to move the state forward.

 But he said in this debate, along with most other debates, the candidates did not provide as much specific detail as he would have liked.

“From Democrats to Republicans, it’s just the nature of the system. They want to focus on big picture issues at this stage of the game.”

The primary concern for Deskins is how to make West Virginia more attractive to businesses. In all decision-making moving forward, from transportation infrastructure to tax policy, he said leaders must ask this question.

“The tax policy structure in West Virginia is OK,” Deskins said. “There’s nothing that would be an overnight game changer.”

He believes the state does need a broader tax base with fewer loopholes and exemptions, along with a lower rate for everyone. He said there’s simply no logic in paying taxes on a kid’s toy but not paying taxes on a haircut.

“It treats all businesses more fairly.”

Heather Stephens, an assistant professor of resource economics and management at WVU, said the most important issue she believes the state must address is expanding broadband.

Cole argued at the debate that broadband should be provided by private industry, whereas Justice said state government should provide access.

“It’s critical to whatever industries are going to be here,” Stephens said.

She said at one point in time, having broadband was considered advantageous. Now, not having broadband is a disadvantage.

“We’re almost at a point if you don’t have broadband, you’re left behind.”

While she considers herself fortunate in Morgantown to have full access, many of her more rural neighbors are not so lucky. She said the state will not be able to capture new opportunities, especially in health care and education, without full access.

She believes a solution lies in a public-private partnership, where the government aids with underlying costs to get the infrastructure up and running and companies can then sell their services.

 “We need to find a way to make it work.”

As for education, Stephens said the state must keep its investment in education at all levels, K-12 and beyond, because the way to grow out of a downturn is to create a skilled workforce.

West Virginia leaders must work with companies planning to come to the state to see how its future workers can better train for the possible jobs, Stephens added.

“For some people that’ll mean a college degree. For some, it means training for skill or trade.”

She said both of these options are important for a state to be economically successful, as companies have jobs at different levels requiring varying skill sets.

Both Stephens and Deskins said legalizing medicinal marijuana, a plan both gubernatorial candidates are in favor of, would not have much economic impact on the state.

Deskins said recreational marijuana could be taxed, but as the tax structure currently stands in West Virginia, medical marijuana would likely be tax-free.

“If it’s grown here, perhaps it could have some economic impacts,” Stephens noted.

— Email: [email protected] and follow on Twitter @WendyHoldren

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