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8th Senate District hopefuls talk roads, education, health care

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A week ago, candidates for West Virginia's new 8th Senate District were talking about pro wrestling and sexually explicit comments posted on a website message board a decade ago.

On Wednesday, Democrat Joshua Martin and Republican Chris Walters stuck to issues outside the squared circle -- roads, education and health care.

Last week, Martin accused Walters' camp of "blackmail" -- trying to force him to withdraw from the Senate race by circulating copies of explicit comments that were posted under Martin's former wrestling alias from 2001 to 2003. Some comments degraded teen girls, the mentally handicapped and women with breast cancer.

Martin acknowledged he had written many of the posts, but he said former writers for a West Virginia-based wrestling show had penned the most offensive and vulgar comments.

During a meeting with Gazette editors Wednesday, Walters said his campaign did not distribute copies of the message board posts, which were delivered to several media outlets in recent weeks.

"I don't know who passed it around," he said.

Martin only briefly addressed the controversy, saying he agreed to play the role of "Chris Sterling" -- a character wrestling fans were supposed to hate -- at the request of the wrestling show's promoter.

"He looked at me and said, 'You're a good-looking guy,' " Martin recalled. "The wrestlers were characters. If you don't agree to play the role, you can't wrestle."

The topic next turned to state highways -- specifically how to pay for them as federal funding erodes.

Martin suggested that the state tap tax revenues from natural gas production in the Marcellus shale to help pay for roads and bridges.

"We have an increasingly more expensive highway system," he said. "Without roads and bridges in this state, West Virginia can't compete."

Walters said corporate sponsorships could help the state pay for road construction and repairs.

In Louisville, Ky., he noted, Kentucky Fried Chicken sponsored a program to repair the city's potholes. The KFC logo was stamped into the fresh pavement.

Walters also suggested that the state could fund highways with up to $100 million in annual tax revenue that's now being used to pay off the state's workers' compensation debt. The state expects to retire the debt in three years.

In addition, Walters said the state could redirect sales tax revenues on car repairs, putting the money into a special fund to pay for highways.

Walters said he would support putting a statewide highway bond issue before voters.

Martin was lukewarm on that idea -- unless the money went to a single project, such as the completion of U.S. 35.

"I would like to stay away from bonds as much as possible," he said.

Both candidates said they would support more funding for higher education in West Virginia.

Walters, who met with West Virginia State University leaders earlier Wednesday, said the newest building on campus is 16 years old.

He said WVSU had outstanding faculty, "but the tools they have to work with are substandard. A growing university just brings more people to the area, more money into the economy."

Both candidates said they agreed with most of the findings in a statewide education audit.

Walters said the state could save millions of dollars each year by purchasing supplies through regional education service agencies, which serve county school systems.

"When you buy in bulk, you save money," Walters said.

Martin said classroom teachers must have more flexibility to work with individual students on subjects, such as science and math, that they're struggling with.

"Allow the teachers to be professionals," he said. "They know what our kids need."

On health care, Martin said he would support an expansion of West Virginia's Medicaid program under President Obama's federal health reform, provided "we can pay for it."

"Health care should be a right," he said.

Walters said he wouldn't take a position on Medicaid expansion until the federal government responds to numerous questions Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has posed about the program's future costs.

"I'd like to see more preventive care," Walters said.

Reach Eric Eyre at ericeyre@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4869.


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