By Sarah Plummer
The Register-Herald of Beckley
CHARLESTON, W.VA. — Two businessmen, each owning a West Virginia business empire, sparred on issues of education and economy Tuesday during the first West Virginia’s Gubernatorial Debate at the Clay Center.
Moderator Ashton Marra, assistant news director for West Virginia Public Broadcasting, began the debate asking GOP candidate Bill Cole and Democratic nominee Jim Justice how they would fix West Virginia’s failing economy in light of the state’s bond rating being downgraded for the third year in a row.
Both candidates agreed West Virginia needs to diversify.
Cole said West Virginia state government needs to partner with businesses instead of being an impediment. He said the governor should be the “chief executive sales officer” for the state to bring in jobs.
Justice said 77 percent of the state is forested and suggests bringing in an American-rooted furniture business to take advantage of that resource. He also noted that tourism and agriculture are two economic engines that West Virginia is not capitalizing on.
In turn, Cole said the timber industry has been abused by the state. Because it is growing at 2.8 times the rate it is harvested, he’d like to see it treated like a crop under the Department of Agriculture.
As the questions moved toward cutting funding for state agencies and education, the candidates differentiated themselves on their position to cut or grow the state a balanced budget.
“We have cut about all we can find,” said Justice. “Teachers have not had a raise since 2014 and PEIA (Public Employees Insurance Agency) continues to climb. There are 600 vacancies, and we can’t find a teacher to go into the classroom.”
“Every day we wake up and look at the television and everyone says, ‘Come to Michigan,'” he continued. “Do you want to get in the car and drive to Detroit? We need to promote us. There are many opportunities here. We need to grow our way out of this mess. You can’t cut your way out of here.”
Cole stressed that teachers should be paid more, but there needs to be cuts made in state government.
“We need to see what our mission is and what we can afford,” he said. “When there is a 7,000 vehicle fleet and every fourth employee takes a car home with them, don’t tell me there aren’t ways to cut. We have to run state government more efficiently.”
Specifically referencing facilities issues that plague Fayette County, Marra asked if consolidation and sending students across county lines to attend schools in other districts should be part of reimagining how county school districts operate.
Cole said community schools should be supported when they can, but West Virginia is not the only state losing population and “to not consider consolidation is craziness.”
“Under decades of Jim’s party’s leadership, we have invested 21st in dollars per student and are 48th in student achievement. That is not acceptable,” Cole continued.
He said the state needs more common sense, and if a student can ride a bus for five minutes to school in a neighboring county instead of 45 minutes, “that makes sense.”
“Why do we continue to restrict and crawl into a hole?” Justice rebutted. “Aren’t we better than this? We are dying every day around us. Bill Cole wants us to have charter schools.”
Justice said education should be an economic driver for the state.
“We have to find a way to fund it. Everyone wants kids to be educated in the best place. Our image outside West Virginia is not the greatest. The thing most people throw rocks at us about is education. People think we have to kill a deer to feed kids at school,” Justice continued. “(Education) needs to be the very first and best thing we do in our state.”
The candidates also differed on the possibility of further cuts to funding for higher education.
Cole said cuts to universities are “hard to face,” but the system is too centered on Charleston and state support.
He said he’d rather see more students graduate from trade school than students leave four-year colleges with student debt.
Justice noted that West Virginia’s colleges and universities have a $2.7 billion impact on the state.
“They are our think tank. They are graduating our future — our best and brightest. We should be going to them and saying, ‘Give us the ideas. Give us ideas for the next niche crop. Give us the next furniture manufacturing possibility. Give us alternative uses for coal. Give us clean coal,” he said.
Both candidates said they would consider legalization of medical marijuana. Cole is against recreational legalization, and while Justice said there are more crucial issues currently at play, he left the door open for considering legalization in the future.
Cole said he recently lost his mother to cancer and would support medicinal use “if medical marijuana had allowed her to get rid of pain and communicate with her family.”
However, Colorado has seen an increase in DUI driving alongside recreational legalization, Cole said. “Pot is a gateway drug. That is proven. We would open a can of worms that is terrible for West Virginia.”
Justice said there are experts who are best to advise the state on how to deal with medical marijuana, which he would support.
“I’m not sure about this, but Colorado brings in about $150 million from marijuana. That moves a lot of ticks on the dial, but it is not going to get us out of this mess,” he said. “I would look at it in the future, but it is not for me today.”
At times, Tuesday’s debate dissolved into a microcosm of the recent presidential debate.
Just as GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump is berated for not paying vendors, so, too did Cole take a jab at Justice for “the small businesses he stiffed.”
“The only plan I’ve heard is to trust me, I’m Jim Justice,” Cole said early in the debate, to which Justice responded, “I don’t ask you to trust me; I’m asking you to quit trusting the other side.”
Both candidates argued over whom Wall Street loved best, and both at times seemed to not answer all questions directly and specifically, blaming the last four years of Republican leadership or decades before of Democratic dominance.
— Email: [email protected]; follow on Twitter @Sarah_E_Plummer