Editor’s Note: The West Virginia Press Association hopes to provide our member newspapers with regular columns from the Governor, President of the Senate, Speaker of the House and Majority and Minority leaders in both chambers, along with the other State Constitutional Officers: Secretary of State, Attorney General, Treasurer, Auditor and Commissioner of Agricultural. The following column – from Senate President Jeff Kessler – is part of that program. These columns are made available for use at your newspaper’s discretion in print and online.
By Jeff Kessler
President, W.Va. State Senate
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — It is an honor to return to Charleston for another Legislative Session. It is a privilege to represent the wonderful people of the 2nd District as President of the West Virginia Senate.
I was pleased with the optimistic and realistic tone in Gov. Earl Tomblin’s State of the State Address this week. There are many things we can and will do in this 60-day session to improve the lives of West Virginians now and in the future, but as we do so, we cannot be blind to the reality that the coming fiscal year presents real challenges and tough decisions. We have always been good stewards of our money in West Virginia and as the leader of the Senate I pledge to continue this philosophy by prioritizing the things we must do from the things that are just not feasible given the current fiscal climate.
This session, the Legislature will have to plug a budget gap of about $250 million. While this is not an insurmountable amount given a general revenue budget of more than $4 billion and a total operating budget in the neighborhood of $18 billion, it does present quite a challenge. While I am reluctant to do so, I would support a one-time use of a portion of our $918 million Rainy Day Fund to help balance the budget. This will allow us to lessen the blow of program and agency cuts while also providing an avenue to pay for increased Medicaid costs.
While the state doesn’t have money for many new programs, I would like to see us to continue last year’s momentum on issues like drug abuse and prison overcrowding while building on changes to the school system that were signed into law last year.
We have to continue to address methamphetamine and prescription drug abuse. I hope we can invest in the future of our citizens by providing more money for treatment. This will save us in the long run by sparing us the higher cost of incarceration and adding to the tax base with a productive, rehabilitated citizen.
Prescription pain medications are highly addictive and they are no longer just a problem in the poorer communities in our state. It is an equal opportunity destroyer and we need to limit the access to these types of things. I also support prescriptions for pseudoephedrine, a main ingredient in methamphetamine.
I will once again be advocating strongly for my Future Fund bill this session. Using a portion of the severance taxes from the state’s growing natural gas industry, we can create a trust fund to create prosperity for generations. My hope is that each year we could set aside 25 percent of any taxes after $100 million has been collected from the industry. The money would eventually be used to help run government in leaner times, add new programs and provide tax relief.
We have always been a heavy extraction state and yet we remain one of the poorer states in the nation. Imagine what would be possible today if we had created a similar policy 40 or 50 years ago with severance taxes from the coal industry. The wealth, prosperity, and flexibility in government would be astounding. Governments in Alaska and North Dakota have instituted similar policies in the past, each showing outstanding results. While most lawmakers have told me they wish we had done this many years ago, it is not too late. We have been given a second chance with the natural gas industry and I remain determined to not let it pass us by. It makes logical sense to invest in the future with revenue from non-renewable resources. With proper vision and planning, we can ensure that wealth and prosperity remain in West Virginia for generations after the resources are gone.
Our state has great potential and I am looking forward to helping us reach that potential during this session and well into the future.
If you would like to follow the daily action of the Legislature, visit the 81st Legislature on the web at http://www.legis.state.wv.us/.
I hear your voice and I encourage all of you, regardless of party or affiliation, to contact me with any concerns you have regarding issues facing our district or our state. You can write to me at: Jeffrey V. Kessler, State Senate, Room 227M, Building 1 State Capitol Complex Charleston, WV 25305.