Despite economic woes, road fund surplus paves way for Dems’ election hopes

West Virginia’s economy has experienced a series of recent misfortunes that suggest this state still has a long way to go to improve its status in the increasingly complex competition for events that can help enhance the Mountain State’s financial future.

First there are the continuing concerns about whether the latest tax break rushed though the 2012 Legislature will succeed in bringing back a major plant and the hundreds of restored jobs it can bring to Jackson County. Supporters insist a critical series of events are all still likely to happen that will eventually result in Century Aluminum, a California-based metal producer, restarting the Ravenswood smelter plant that put more than 650 people out of work when it shut down in 2009.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin signed the new tax legislation in a warehouse at the vacant facility along the Ohio River last week. It is intended to allow Century to negotiate a long-term contract for electricity with Appalachian Power Co. This can potentially provide up to $20 million of annual tax credits for that utility each of the first 10 years after the plant resumes operations.

Century Aluminum in turn could anticipate rate breaks on its large volume of electricity consumption of as much as $50 million to $60 million as a result of this new law for the first and possibly the second year, if and when it resumes operations. A favorable new contract with the United Steelworkers union must also be nailed down as well if the plant is to reopen.

Meanwhile, the West Virginia Parkways Authority was obviously disappointed that not a single proposal was received from potential developers of a proposed hotel on part of the 82 acres of undeveloped land adjacent to the Tamarack visitors center at the Beckley interchange of the West Virginia Turnpike.

Greg Barr, general manger of the Parkways Authority, admitted the agency is “frustrated” that no one responded to recommendations from a 2011 study that concluded a hotel would be the best use of the land since neighboring Fayette County will begin hosting national Boy Scout Jamborees every four years beginning in 2013. The new Boy Scout adventure camp is expected to attract 50,000 to 55,000 scouts annually.

Beckley got more bad business news when Southern Coal Co., which is owned by Greenbrier resort owner Jim Justice, announced it has moved its accounting and finance headquarters from Beckley to Roanoke, Va. The company recently purchased a new office building in Roanoke for $1.2 million. A son, Jay Justice, lives in Roanoke and oversees the daily operations of the family’s coal and agricultural operations in Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as West Virginia.

Both Jim Justice and his son insist they are not moving the headquarters but simply providing a central location for the son’s role in the business.

Finally, while it may not seem that big a deal, the recent State Supreme Court decision that upholds the right of county health boards to prohibit smoking at charitable raffles may also apply to numerous charitable bingo operations around the state. Some attorneys believe it also overturns a 2003 court decision that made an exception for smoking in bingo halls in the case of Foundation for Independent Living v. Cabell-Huntington Board of Health.

Meanwhile, the news couldn’t be better for the incumbent Democrat administration in the State Capitol. There is a $30 million surplus in the state’s highway budget originally earmarked for snow removal this unusually mild winter that can now be used to repair secondary roads in West Virginia.

The original Department of Transportation’s 2011-2012 budget allocation for snow removal and ice control was $57.7 million and nearly $32 million of that had not been spent at the end of March, which is usually the end of the winter season. So DOH officials believe they can now count on at least $30 million that can be diverted to much-needed work on the state’s less traveled secondary highway network.

Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who is running for a full, four-year term, had already set aside $18 million in the budget this year for renovations on the secondary road system. At the usual rate of about $100,000 per mile of new surfacing for secondary roads, this translates into improvements to some 300 miles of highway. Major work on bridges and culverts, however, will reduce the number of miles to be resurfaced, however.

The bottom line is that all Democrat incumbents on the ballot this year can count on road repairs to improve their image with the voters from the governor right on down to elected county officials. It’s far more effective campaign advertising than the individual campaign signs that deface the landscape.

Finally, the competition to succeed current state Republican Party chairman Mike Stuart who plans to resign after the May 8 primary election includes at least two individuals who could also hold an elective public office. They are Mark Sorsaia, who is running unopposed for another term as prosecuting attorney of Putnam County, and Tom O’Neill who is running for a seat on the Buckhannon City Council.

Sorsaia was an unsuccessful candidate for governor in the GOP primary while O’Neill is one of five vice chairs of the state Republican Party. There were at least four other names being mentioned last week including Morgantown attorney Patrick Esposito, who was chairman of Bill Maloney’s unsuccessful bid as the GOP nominee for governor in the 2011 special election. Esposito, however, only switched to the Republican Party two years ago after serving as general counsel to former Democrat Governor Bob Wise.

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