By George Hohmann
For the West Virginia Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Issues ranging from the state’s mounting budget deficit to the natural gas industry’s potential in the Appalachian basin were among the topics at the West Virginia Press Association’s annual Legislative Breakfast Thursday morning.
Other issues highlighted at the event were broadband development, health care, senior citizen and higher education issues.
State Senate President Bill Cole, R-Mercer, said, “People come through my office every single day saying, ‘Don’t cut my program.’ I want to cry because they’re all good programs. The 8,000-pound gorilla in the room is the budget crisis we’re in.”
It is estimated that the state will end the fiscal year on June 30 with a $356 million shortfall but Cole said, “We’ll be lucky if we get out at $400 million and it could be $450 million.”
Cole, who is running for Governor, said, “There’s not a lot of appetite at the capitol for tax increases” because they “could put an even larger burden on working people.”
State Senate Minority Leader Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, who also is running for Governor, said, “I’m not afraid to say the ugly ’T’ word. We need to invest in roads, broadband. Everything we talk about is money. We can’t cut enough.”
Kessler favors increasing the state tax on tobacco and said the Legislature should consider raising taxes on beer, alcohol and gasoline and should look at raising Division of Motor Vehicle fees. “You don’t fix roads on spit,” he said.
House Speaker Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, said voters gave the Republicans control of the Legislature “because they were frustrated. They wanted to see change. And that’s what we’re doing. Change is never easy.
“The front-page news is we have some serious crises,” he said. “We’re losing population, we’re last in workforce participation. We’re at the bottom in terms of K through 12 educational achievement. Things are not where we want them to be. We have to attack them with bold solutions.”
Minority Leader Tim Miley, D-Harrison, said House Democrats are focused on restoring $120 million in health insurance benefit cuts affecting more than 200,000 public employees and retirees covered by the state Public Employees Insurance Agency.
“We need to focus on jobs, education and health,” Miley said. “I think all of them are interrelated. We need to invest in those areas where we see positive results. You can’t cut your way to prosperity.”
Steve White, executive director of the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation, an umbrella group representing construction craft workers, said he’s spent the current session defending the state’s prevailing wage law and opposing a right-to-work proposal. “I wish I was talking about infrastructure or workforce development or combating drug abuse.”
“We understand the change in power,” he said, referring to the Legislature’s shift from Democrat to Republican control. “We want to have an opportunity to try to find common ground. Frankly, that has not been the process. There’s been debate but it’s more a ‘theater debate.’ There’s been no meaningful committee dialog, no sitting down and figuring out what you don’t like in the current methodology.”
Corky DeMarco, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, spoke about oil and natural gas. He predicted the Appalachian basin will be producing oil and natural gas “maybe for a thousand years.”
“We got so smart now we’ve kind of priced ourselves out of the market,” DeMarco said, referring to the low price of oil and natural gas.
“We used to get about 18 million to 20 million cubic feet of natural gas out of a good vertical well in a year,” he explained. With horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, “we’re now getting that out of a Marcellus Shale well in a day.
“We know in the Utica Shale formation some wells are coming in at 88 million cubic feet a day,” he said. “And we know that neither the Marcellus nor the Utica have tremendous declining production curves like conventional wells have. We also know there are other shale formations.”
DeMarco said the industry needs pooling legislation, which would in some circumstances allow companies to force uncooperative mineral owners to sign a lease. A pooling bill died on the last day of the session last year. “Whether we’ll get it this time or not, I don’t know,” he said.
Frontier Communications spokesman Andy Malinoski spoke about broadband. He said customers want reliability, speeds that meet their needs, and a fair price.
Kevin Wallick, senior vice president and general manager of Frontier Communications in West Virginia, said, “Reliability is something we’re working on all of the time.”
Regarding speed, Malinoski said, “In our market, 70 percent of customers who could buy faster speeds don’t.”
So-called “last-mile” connections are what is most needed in West Virginia, Malinoski said, comparing the need to “getting the gravel road paved or the water line completed to your house.”
Fred Earley, president of Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield West Virginia, spoke about health care challenges in the Mountain State.
Because of the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare, and the expansion of Medicaid, about 10 percent of the state’s population that didn’t previously have health insurance does have it now, Earley said.
Three quarters of patient revenue for hospitals in West Virginia now comes from government reimbursements. Those reimbursements are less than the cost of services. That puts more of the burden on commercial payers, he said.
“The fundamental large-scale-picture question is, what can be done to make these government programs sustainable?” he said. The state Public Employees Insurance Agency’s funding problem “is the leading edge of what we’re seeing in this,” he said.
AARP West Virginia State Director Gaylene Miller spoke about issues affecting people aged 50 and up.
Miller said AARP is pushing the Legislature to give nurse practitioners more leeway to provide primary care. She said AARP also wants to improve support for the state’s estimated 300,000 family caregivers.
In addition, AARP wants to strengthen the criminal penalties for abuse, neglect or exploitation of vulnerable individuals, she said.
Paul Hill, chancellor of the West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission, said, “Higher education is more important today than ever — particularly in a time of a shifting economy and uncertainties.”
Hill noted that “there’s an assertion out there that higher education is not as valuable now as it might have been. I believe that is emphatically incorrect. It has driven down our college-going rate in West Virginia. We’re where we were in 1999, just because of that perception.”
The Higher Education Policy Commission is focused on improving the college-going rate in West Virginia; increasing the college graduation rate; and preserving the affordability of a college education in the state, he said.
The Legislative Breakfast was Feb. 4 at the Charleston Marriott Hotel. It was sponsored by the press association with partners Frontier Communications, AARP WV, the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association and Highmark Blue Cross Blue Shield.