Senate candidates split on natural gas, PEIA

October 13, 2018
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Three state senate candidates in Putnam County see a future for the state in natural gas and know the Public Employees Insurance Agency needs legislative work, but all split on how those worlds collide.

The three candidates spoke to editors of the Charleston Gazette-Mail before an election with an unusual political calculus; all three — a Democrat, Republican and independent — are running for a seat vacated by a senator who left to serve as chief of staff to the governor.

Eric Tarr, a physical therapist running as a Republican, beat out appointed-Sen. Mark Drennan in a primary for the seat in May. He sees natural gas as a vehicle to diversify the economy. “We have a lot of opportunity for the diversification coming in through us,” he said. “We have natural gas sitting under our feet that is on a global scale competitive with any other country in the world. That downstream industry that can come from the natural gas development, that comes from petrochemical, is a boon for economic diversification.”

However, he didn’t speak to whether an increased severance tax on natural gas should help pay for PEIA’s cost increases, as his opponents suggested. He said PEIA lacks fiscal accountability, and structural changes to its pharmaceutical benefit plan could help to wrangle down its costs.

Additionally, he said it’s time to look at fully privatizing the agency.

“The administration of it is still with our governor, our executive branch of government, who shouldn’t be in the insurance business,” he said. “I’d like to see it looked at, for privatizing, look at the investigation of where we can improve stability, where we can provide improve value for less cost and make it an insurance plan rather than the way it’s currently structured, which is set up to fail.”

Brian Prim, a personal injury and wrongful death attorney running as a Democrat, said the state needs to look into an increasingly popular idea among state Democrats to cover PEIA’s cost increases via a severance tax increase on natural gas.

Likewise, he said privatizing the program would be a move in the wrong direction.

**I have represented numerous labor union health and welfare funds. I know the benefits, and when you take profit out of the insurance business and the goal is how best to provide benefits to the participants, rather than how can we make a profit off of this plan,” he said. “I just think that would be a recipe for disaster”

Amy Nichole Grady, a Mason County teacher running as an independent, said for one, the Legislature needs to do all it can to ensure jobs in the industry wind up going to West Virginians, not residents of neighboring states.

A PEIA recipient herself, Grady said she’s curious about a severance tax on gas to cover PEIA, although she would want to see it structured to not overburden smaller businesses in the industry.

“If we could tier it in some way, have it tiered so it does not affect the small businesses or small companies as much as it does those large companies that are making multi-millions of dollars off of it, it would possibly work.”

Grady said when it comes to education, the state needs to get away from the dogma of telling every student they need to go to college. Instead, she said public schools need to teach more technical and trade skills to put kids in a direction where they can have a job that exists in the state.

“The working class and the middle class created West Virginia, made West Virginia our state,” she said. “We need to quit pushing college so much on all these children.”

Likewise, Prim said more than a need for tort or tax reform, the state needs to fix its “woefully underfunded” education system.

“People in other states say they won’t come to West Virginia because they can’t get upper-level employees to come to an area where the education system is considered so poor to bring their children and be living in the communities,” he said.

As trials of articles of impeachment and criminal charges roil the state Supreme Court, both Tarr and Prim weighed in on whether impeachment proceedings have become politicized.

Tarr denied the charge, saying that after revelations of such egregious spending and other offenses, investigation via impeachment was the only option.

“The only constitutional oversight we have is investigation through impeachment proceedings,” he said. “I don’t see how that’s political when you see the kind of corruption they identified.”

The legislative auditor and his office have probed Supreme Court spending in four separate audits, and have testified at proceedings as well. When asked whether the audits are a form of legislative investigatory oversight, Tarr said there’s no inherent accountability there.

“There’s a legislative audit, but there’s not really an accountability for it,” he said. “The only way there’s accountability, the way I understand it, is through an impeachment process.”

On the other hand, Prim said the proceedings have been compromised by politics, and there’s a dangerous precedent being set of impeaching justices for lavish spending when it’s unclear that as much is an impeachable offense.

“The idea of impeachment over a group of us decided that somehow you mismanaged something that you’re allowed to do with your authority is a scary path to take,” he said. “My fears of what could happen in the future with other seats of government, not just the Supreme Court, it’s just an awful way to go.”

The 4th District covers all of Jackson and Mason counties and parts of Roane and Putnam counties.

Reach Jake Zuckerman at Jake, zuekerman@wvgazett e-mall.com. 304-348-4814 or follow @Jake_zuckerman on Twitter.

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