CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Leaders of the state legislature agree, as House Minority Leader Tim Armstead put it: “The water issue obviously has become one of the central — if not the central — issues of this session.”
Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall; Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam; House Speaker Tim Miley, D-Harrison; and Armstead, R-Kanawha, all spoke about the ongoing water issues in a nine-county area during the West Virginia Press Association’s 2014 Legislative Breakfast.
Armstead, Kessler and Miley agreed that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin made the right decision on Feb. 5 when he announced water quality sampling will be done in homes in the area affected by the Jan. 9 chemical spill in the Elk River. The spill contaminated West Virginia American Water’s system, which serves 300,000 people.
Hall said, “We ought to go as far as we can and spend as much money as we need to get our citizens satisfied. If our citizens stay up in arms about this and push back, it will affect tourism, it will affect business, it will affect this region. I will stand with the President and the Governor and advocate whatever it takes to get it established that everything is safe here and the citizens are assured of that fact because if we can get over this bump, I believe there’s nothing but good for the future.”
Kessler said, “People want to know if the water in their homes is safe. Not if it’s safe in the hydrants or at the intake down at the plant – they want to know when it comes in their homes and they turn on their spigot if it’s safe.”
It costs about $675 to do a water test in a residence, Kessler said. For probably less than $50,000 to $75,000, random testing could be done in a representative sample of homes “and we would know definitively…whether those samples come back clean and if they come back clean…I think that would go a long way toward reducing the public anxiety and level of mistrust that the water’s safe,” he said. “I’m glad to see the governor appears to be going down that line now.
“The big problem we have as public officials is to restore the public’s trust that the water is safe.”
Hall said he recently viewed a presentation by Michigan tourism officials about that state’s image campaign, “Pure Michigan.” He said the experts are saying it will take one and a half to three years for West Virginia to overcome the negative image created by the water disaster.
“The economic development office tells me you can’t even quantify the millions of dollars of negative that’s happened around the country,” he said.
“I agree with my friends with tourism that we probably ought to begin to look at what some other states have done with this type of advertising like ‘Pure Michigan.’ Utah is doing it, the state of New York is doing it. When they had the Gulf Coast disaster with the oil spill, nobody wanted to go to the gulf. You began to see, although you don’t see them anymore, but you began to see these commercials that were done.
“The tourism industry is telling me that we’ve had these trade-off sort of grants for individual business. They’re willing to give that up in order to promote the entire state without promoting an individual business. That’s not a partisan issue. That’s just West Virginia.”
Armstead said, “In my 16 years in the legislature I don’t know that I’ve seen quite the crisis of confidence that I see as a result of this water crisis. It’s a crisis of confidence in our water system. It’s also a crisis of confidence in our government. It’s a crisis of confidence in our everyday life, to a large degree.
He added, “We have work to do on other issues that will go a long way to send the message to the rest of the country and the world that West Virginia is a place you would like to come live, that you would want to do business here and employ people here.”
Kessler said the state budget is the other big issue consuming much of the legislature’s time. “This year it’s cut and shift, like a running back … borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.” This year and next are forecast to be the state’s lean budget years, he said.
Kessler has high hopes that the legislature will create a “Future Fund,” which would save some natural gas severance tax revenue for future use. If the legislature had set aside one percent of the severance tax starting in 1975 and earned 10 percent on the money, “we would have nearly $8 billion today,” he said.
If the state had that money and earned 10 percent a year – it would have $800 million a year to invest in roads, raise teacher pay or eliminate the equipment inventory tax, Kessler said.
Hall said the voters made a great decision in 2000 when they approved an amendment to the state constitution allowing the Investment Management Board to invest pension money in stocks. Until then, investments were limited to bonds. “That was a multi-billion-dollar right decision,” he said.
Miley, who became House speaker in June, said he has placed an emphasis on getting along. He promised the water legislation that emerges from the House will be the product of bipartisan efforts.
He said the House Small Business, Entrepreneurship and Economic Development Committee, which he created, will conduct a “listening tour” in upcoming weeks to hear small business success stories, to learn about concerns, and to find out what can be done to help create jobs.
The tour’s first stop will be from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Feb. 11 at the Gaston Caperton Center, 501 W. Main St., Clarksburg. The second will be from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Feb. 17 in the Shawkey Room of the Memorial Student Center at Marshall University, Huntington. Other stops will include Charleston, Lewisburg, Beckley and Logan County, Miley said.
Armstead said the Republicans envision building a foundation for the state that addresses election issues like those seen in southern West Virginia; makes changes in purchasing procedures; and tightens government ethics rules. He envisions building four walls on the foundation: The tax structure, the education system, the infrastructure, and the legal climate. “Those are the four walls we need to work on and build to move our economy forward.”
A bill that would close some of the loopholes in the state’s Freedom of Information Act will be introduced soon, Armstead said. “We still have a need for more openness in our government,” he said. “Openness in government is good for government.”
The breakfast was on Feb. 6 at the Marriott.