By RUSTY MARKS
The State Journal
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — While members of the Legislature are struggling to figure out how to plug an estimated $500 million hole in the upcoming state budget, state Commerce Secretary Woody Thrasher is trying to talk them into giving him $105 million.
Thrasher told members of the House of Delegates Finance Committee on Wednesday that the money he’s requesting would go to the state Development Office and tourism department. The funds would attract new business to the Mountain State and increase West Virginia’s tourism potential, he said.
“We are not limited by opportunities; we are limited by capital and tools in our toolbox to take advantage of opportunities,” Thrasher told members of the Finance Committee.
Thrasher said the $105 million was needed to “jump start” a West Virginia economy that has been left in shambles by the decline of the coal industry.
Much of the money would go to incentives to attract business to West Virginia.
But Thrasher took pains to say several times that the incentives were not “giving people money.”
He said the money would be used for things like infrastructure improvements or site preparation to convince business owners to locate in West Virginia.
“It’s not a giveaway,” Thrasher said. “It has to be an investment, not a gift.”
Part of the money would go to the state Division of Tourism.
Tourism Commissioner Chelsea Ruby said the state’s approach to promoting and encouraging tourism has been hit-and-miss, and tourism officials want to take a look at each region of the state to figure out how to best take advantage of each area’s tourism potential.
Ruby said the state of Michigan made a conscious decision years ago to sink more money into promoting tourism in the state, and currently spends $38 million on advertising. Ruby wants a more modest $5.6 million.
Delegates on the committee were skeptical of the idea without more detailed plans.
“I guess it wouldn’t be adequate for me to say, ‘Trust me,’” Thrasher said, as the committee room broke into laughter.
Finance Chairman Eric Nelson, R-Kanawha, said he wanted to see more details of how Thrasher intended to use the money.
“We need to see some parameters before this moves forward,” Nelson said.
Thrasher said he would come back with more details.
Justice wants to balance the state budget through a combination of cuts and new revenue measures, including a 0.5 percent increase in the state sales tax. Republican leaders in the House and Senate want to balance the budget without having to resort to tax increases.
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