The race for the 67th delegate district, a seat left vacant by the departure of longtime incumbent John Doyle, is a contest between three candidates – two Republicans and a Democrat.
Republican businessmen Elliot Simon and Matthew Harris will first compete in the primary. The winner will face off against attorney Stephen Skinner, who is running unopposed in the Democratic primary.
Simon, a former business executive and transportation consultant, says his experience in business makes him ready to establish effective economic policy for promoting “fiscal responsibility, and creating an economy where we will be creating jobs.”
“I understand what businesses need in terms of economic policy in order for business to be successful,” Simon said. “I’m running for delegate because people are hurting, and I care about that. People are struggling. It’s hard to find a job. And the reason it is hard to find a job is that people don’t want to do business here in West Virginia.”
Skinner, whose legal practice focuses on civil litigation, said his work has given him an intimate familiarity with the West Virginia Code.
“I deal with the result of legislation every single day. I’ve been working with the state code for 20 years. I think it is important to understand how the code interplays with the state Constitution and with state and federal law,” Skinner said. “Because I represent people who find themselves in some type of situation where they need to be in a lawsuit, I also get a unique perspective on where the state code can help or hurt.”
Skinner also emphasizes his efforts to make the Eastern Panhandle’s issues heard in Charleston.
“I’ve been active in local and state politics for a while, and I have spent a lot of time at the legislature working on different issues,” Skinner said. “I spend a lot of time trying to translate what is going on in Charleston to people in the Eastern Panhandle. I think the road both ways. We need to communicate to the rest of the state our issues, and how unique our situation is.”
Harris, who runs a construction company, describes himself as an “independent Republican,” and adds that he disagrees with positions held by both parties, but tends to agree more with Republicans than Democrats.
“I think we should have less government control and more voice of the people,” Harris said. “I don’t believe in government controlling my life, but I believe in individual freedom and individual choice as long as it doesn’t hinder another person’s rights or freedoms.”
Harris said he was motivated to run because of his opposition to two legislative proposals in particular: one which would limit gun purchases to one per month and a second that would impose a tax on Internet commerce.
Each candidate emphasizes the need for promotion of economic development through tax reform, though each has a different take on what reforms are necessary.
Harris argues for elimination of the personal property tax along with impact fees.
“Last year we had $54 million in revenue that was overtaxed to the people of West Virginia, which is unfair. It goes into an escrow account. People are forced to pay taxes in order to live here. Why not eliminate the personal property tax to put more money in people’s pockets?” Harris said. “Using the Marcellus Shale – receiving, last time I knew about it, $16 trillion in tax revenue from them – we can easily eliminate the personal property tax.”
West Virginia collected approximately $182 million in drilling and property taxes from the Marcellus Shale in 2009, the latest year for which data was available, according to the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.
Harris also said he supports classifying more spending in the state budget.
Skinner said he would support elimination of the B&O tax as long as the state could develop a substitute revenue stream for municipalities.
“I want to make sure that any development we have is sustainable, that we’re promoting a business environment that will be enticing new businesses to come. I think a lot of that is simplifying the tax code and adjusting the tax code,” Skinner said.
“I think that taxes like the B&O tax disincentivize businesses from locating in municipalities in West Virginia. I want to find a solution to eliminate the B&O tax and find a way to get revenue from other sources to replace it,” Skinner said, adding the tax causes “businesses (to) desert the towns, and we end up with these ghost-cities that don’t have the tax base to support themselves.”
Skinner also advocates developing state programs to better enable homeowners with upside-down mortgages to sell their homes.
“Our folks are hurting in real estate. We’ve got regular, everyday folks who are under water on their mortgages,” Skinner said. “We need to not just rely on Washington to solve the problem. We need to be working on the problem here in West Virginia.”
Simon said he supports eliminating two state taxes in order to promote economic development: the business property, machinery and inventory tax and the business franchise tax.
“The property tax on property, machinery and inventory is a killer because you have to pay taxes to West Virginia before you even have revenue dollar number one. It increases the risk for an entrepreneur to come here and start up,” Simon said.
Simon said the business franchise tax presents a similar disincentive for new companies to locate in the state because it is assessed on the overall value of a company rather than its revenue or profit.
“It increases the risk, and people don’t want to do business where there is a lot of risk. So we’re not competitive,” Simon said.
Simon said the regulatory and legal systems of West Virginia also contribute to a lack of economic development throughout the state.
“The permitting process takes so long. There are places where you can be up and running in a matter of days and here it takes months,” Simon said. “I would streamline that process and not make it so onerous.”
“For I don’t know how many years, West Virginia was the number one state with regard to being a judicial hellhole,” Simon said. “We don’t have an intermediate court of appeals, so you don’t have a guaranteed right of appeal, and you have partisan election of judges.”
“We are perceived by others to not be as fair as other states and that is a problem because if a business feels that they are more likely to be sued in West Virginia than in Maryland or Virginia, they’ll go someplace else,” Simon said.
Skinner argues that promoting businesses and improving the education system are key to attracting business.
“I want to make sure that we are adequately promoting our businesses – especially tourism,” Skinner said.
“We have to figure out funding for public worker salaries. It is shocking, the disparity in pay for teachers in Jefferson County versus Loudoun County versus Frederick County. We are doing ourselves a disservice in terms of economic development in Jefferson County – attracting businesses – if we do not have a stable, professional teaching force. And the way to do that is to pay them well,” Skinner said.
Simon emphasizes the need to rein in the state’s debt, which he says many are currently underestimating. Published reports indicate the state may face around $41 billion in long-term debt.
“That is over $22,000 dollars for every man, woman and child in the state. That’s a ticking time bomb that we need to deal with now,” Simon said.
“The West Virginia budget has tripled since 1990. You have this scale where the population has gone up 1 percent, but the budget – if you adjust for inflation – has gone up 100 percent,” Simon said. “That’s not a good trend.”
Simon argues that politicians who tout West Virginia’s fiscal health are papering over the underlying problems.
“If you don’t pay your mortgage, and you don’t pay your credit card debt, you’re going to have positive cash flow. Everything is going to seem all right until those debts mature and come back to bite you,” Simon said.
“What do we get for that huge investment? We have a school system that does not rank very well nationally. We fall near the bottom of every important economic category like per capita income, for example,” Simon said, adding that West Virginia also received the lowest Kauffman Index score, a measure of entrepreneurial activity, of any state.