CHARLES TOWN – The contest for the newly created 66th delegate district will be a three-candidate race all to way to the general election in November.
Democrat John Maxey and Republican Paul Espinosa will vie for the open seat as will independent candidate Fred Blackmer.
Taxing and spending
Both Espinosa and Maxey call themselves fiscal conservatives, although each proposes different solutions to economic development, with Espinosa arguing spending needs to be reined in, while Maxey said his focus is on tax fairness.
Maxey, who founded Data Direct, a database and data-mining firm, supports preparing for incoming obligations by increasing coal severance tax collections.
“One of the problems … is making sure that we have tax revenue into the state. We need to make sure the state is spending money wisely. It is currently not. And we have to make sure that tax revenue is fairly assessed. It is not,” Maxey said, pointing out that, though the coal severance tax was supposed to be assessed at five percent of the commodity value, tax loopholes have allowed the coal industry to pay only 3.4 percent on average. “There are $150 million a year in loopholes associated with the coal severance tax. Those loopholes have to be closed.”
Maxey argues doing away with special tax exemptions for certain kinds of coal mining will not be overly burdensome to the industry.
“We’re mining coal in West Virginia and selling it so cheap that it is economical to pay the freight from here to Baltimore and then from Baltimore all the way around the world to sell to the Chinese. That is completely ridiculous,” Maxey said.
Espinosa argues that tax cutting measures are key to stimulating growth.
“Controlling government spending is something that I think is resonating as I talk with folks in the community. They recognize that we cannot continue to spend more than taxpayers are able to afford,” said Espinosa, a past president of the Chamber of Commerce and a board member of the Development Authority. “Look at some of the financial responsibilities that we’ll be incurring here in the coming years, as more and more of the federal mandates are pushed down to the state level. I mean, we’re looking at several hundred million dollars of additional expense in Medicare, for example.”
He said it is important to keep financial resources in the hands of the taxpayers.
“The more that you have those resources in their hands, that obviously increases their economic opportunities,” Espinosa said. “I just don’t think we can continue to tax our way out of the issues we face. That is why I intend to focus on economic development.”
Blackmer, who works as a consultant for individuals seeking to navigate local government, said he eschewed party affiliation years ago because he sees party politics as a barrier to effective problem solving.
“I found that the party system was just not working for me,” Blackmer said. “I did what was right for me. I followed my conscience and filed with no party affiliation. My interest is local. (It’s) representing my neighbors. I felt that I could always function better just representing my neighbors because they were my neighbors if (party politics) was removed from the discussion.”
Blackmer said he wants to “demonstrate how issue resolution versus politics can benefit the entire community and state.”
“Identifying what a problem actually is and then looking for the solution to that problem is the way to address these things,” Blackmer said, pointing out that he has helped local citizens with a host of issues, including reducing the speed limit near Morgan’s Grove Park and helping Blue Ridge residents with problems related to the construction of W.Va. 9 and the activities of a nearby quarry.
His proposals about taxation focus on seniors and farmers.
“(Seniors) are in a position where they have a legitimate concern of being taxed out of their property because taxes go up but they have no control over their revenues,” said Blackmer. “The (homestead) exemption is interesting … but it’s been demonstrated to have not been an answer to the problem. It’s more political than substance.
“The solution to this is allowing seniors to opt-in for a freeze on their property taxes. Not that they don’t owe the money, just that it is held as a lien against their property,” Blackmer said. “When the property is sold, the revenue from the sale of that property brings the taxes current.”
Farmers are also at risk of being taxed out of their property when they decide not to actively cultivate their fields for a period of time, said Blackmer, because they are at risk of losing their agricultural property tax assessment rate.
“When they aren’t in active agriculture … they could be reassessed in a different class, lose their agricultural exemption,” Blackmer said. “They haven’t changed a thing. They haven’t gone to the planning commission. They haven’t contacted general motors. They just let their land stay open and not actively farmed. And they have a tax bill that is staggering. It forces the sale of the property.”
Blackmer proposes a measure which would maintain the agricultural exemption for farmers that leave their fields fallow for a time.
“If you’ve had an (agricultural) exemption as producing farmer for, say, 10 of the last 15 years, you would continue to enjoy that tax exemption if, for whatever reason, you weren’t farming but didn’t change the land use,” Blackmer said. “You shouldn’t be punished tax-wise for that.”
Espinosa said he would support creating exemptions from the business franchise tax and the corporate net tax for businesses that agree to make large investments and guarantee jobs in West Virginia.
He also argues that elimination of taxes on business equipment and inventory would encourage companies to move to West Virginia. He argues lost funds could be made up for by setting aside a portion of the revenue from excise taxes on natural gas, which are expected to increase greatly in coming years as the Marcellus Shale fields are increasingly exploited.
Maxey argues that taxes are not a barrier to growth in West Virginia.
“You read constantly when you deal with economic development in West Virginia that there are problems with friendliness to business, that West Virginia is considered to be not friendly to business.”
“I moved my company to West Virginia three years ago from Maryland after operating for three years in Maryland, DC and Virginia,” Maxey said. “West Virginia is by far the easiest to work with as a small business.”
“Another thing you hear is that the corporate tax rate is too high and that business taxes are too high. It’s not true. If you look at it, the Tax Institute, which is a conservative organization, (has rated West Virginia) in the top half of the states for favorable tax rates,” Maxey said.
Attracting businesses, better schools
Maxey and Espinosa disagree about the need for judicial reform as a way to attract business. Espinosa argues that the state’s judicial climate is also unfriendly to business.
“If you look at our judicial climate here in West Virginia, it is still viewed nationally as not being particularly fair to both large and small businesses,” Espinosa said. “(Businesses) are less likely to locate here in West Virginia if they feel that they are going to put their investment at risk through a judicial system that is not fair.”
Espinosa said he would support the creation of an intermediate appellate court, which would guarantee businesses a right to appeal civil judgments against them.
“You hear sometimes that we are a ‘legal hellhole,’ that there is lawsuit abuse. Also not true. West Virginia ranks 37 in terms of lawsuits filed per capita,” Maxey said, adding the real problem with employers not locating to the state resides with education and perceptions about the state’s regulatory environment.
“First, employers are not going to locate here if they cannot send their kids to schools that they think are worthwhile. Second, there is a perception that the regulatory structure of this state is no more level than the terrain. There is a perception that decisions are made by regulatory authorities based on who you know or who you are rather than the strength of your business plan or your ideas. It is a culture of cronyism that has been rampant in this state for a long time, and it is one that we’re going to have to work very hard to overcome,” Maxey said.
Both Espinosa and Maxey also emphasize education reform.
Espinosa said he would support “legislation that would really empower our principles, our teachers and our local school boards to make the type of decisions that need to be made in order to ensure that taxpayers in the county are getting the proper returns on investment.”
“There was a recent education efficiency audit that was conducted that indicates that West Virginia schools are among the most regulated in the country and most centrally regulated in the country. This makes it difficult for local school boards, for principals and teachers to have the flexibility that they need in order to truly be responsive to needs of students,” Espinosa said.
Maxey agreed, citing the same recent audit of the states education system.
“It is not the amount of money we are spending. We spend a reasonable amount per student, if you look at the data. We’re not using that money effectively,” Maxey said. “If we can implement the cuts in Gov. Tomblin’s report and transfer that $100 million to the classrooms, it is going to make a difference.”
Maxey said he would also support increased teacher pay across the board as well as locality pay, a proposal which would pay teachers in counties near states on higher pay scales more than others.
“Teacher pay in West Virginia ranks at near the bottom of the country. It has to be raised across the entire state,” Maxey said. “Teachers across the state need to be paid enough to indicate that we’re serious about attracting and keeping the best people. We’re not doing that right now.”
Maxey argued that recent layoffs in the Jefferson County school system have been misguided.
“Now that they’re being forced to make the cuts, they’re cutting classroom teachers and service personnel that work directly with students. That’s a mistake,” Maxey said. “The place to cut is at the board level and at the state level. The place to cut is the administration.”
Blackmer and Espinosa both expressed support for creating an alternate exit on Mission Road, which currently dead ends near the county line.
Espinosa said he supports finding a solution but said he would leave it to citizens to decide what form the alternate exit would take.
Blackmer said he feels a bridge across the Shenandoah River would be the best solution.
“There is the gorilla in the back corner, which is, if they have one of these 50 or 100 year fires up there. How do you get people out of there?” said Blackmer. “Because it costs money isn’t a reason not to do it.”
“The cost should be the last item. This is the problem; this is the solution; now, how do we get the money to do this? You can’t make anything work when you do it the other way around,” Blackmer said.
To find out more about 66th District candidates, check out these websites: