CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin says he would stay the course if re-elected, including continuing tax cuts for businesses and consumers. Republican nominee Bill Maloney is telling voters he'll pursue changes such as creating an intermediate appeals court and providing medical benefits to public employees through individual health savings accounts.
Each plans to act on a recent audit that found the state's public school system choked by bureaucracy and regulation, and is second-guessing calls to expand Medicaid. Both support finding new ways to fund the state's aging roads and bridges, fueling vehicles with West Virginia's ample natural gas and devoting more resources to battling drug addiction. But the candidates otherwise outlined contrasting agendas during separate interviews with The Associated Press.
Nov. 6 will be a rematch between the two men. After acting as governor while state Senate president, Tomblin narrowly defeated Maloney in an October 2011 special election to complete the term of now-U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin. Tomblin and Maloney, a longtime drilling engineer and successful business owner from Morgantown, are running along with several third-party and write-in candidates for a full four-year term.
Tomblin, 60 and a Democrat, credits West Virginia's strong emergency reserves and its recent back-to-back annual surpluses to a conservative handling of state finances developed during his more than 30 years in the Legislature. He plans to continue the gradual cuts that by 2014 will repeal the business franchise tax and reduce the corporate net income tax rate to 6.5 percent - it had been a regional-high 9 percent in 2006. Under Tomblin, the state is also on course to eliminate sales taxes on groceries on July 1, 2013, after methodically paring down its rate.
"For every penny we cut in the consumer sales tax on food, that's in the neighborhood of $26 million that goes back into the taxpayers' pockets in West Virginia," Tomblin said, adding that the other cuts "are things that help businesses decide how much they can invest in the state of West Virginia, to create jobs. Our whole goal is to have a tax system that is competitive with our sister states."
Maloney seeks the immediate repeal of the business franchise tax, which is based on a company's net equity. The 54-year-old also advocates allowing counties and municipalities to levy more taxes. State law now limits local taxes, with counties and their school systems relying mostly on property taxes.
"We need to have some ways to make it easier for local government - county, city - to fund things that they need to get done," Maloney said. "They know what they need and they can figure out how to generate the revenues they need to fund those needs."
Maloney believes that expanding local taxing power would allow for greater breaks from the tax on non-real estate property. The state constitution tightly controls property taxes, and attempts to amend that language have bogged down in the Legislature.
Tomblin secured an additional property tax exemption this year, as part of the state's so-far-unsuccessful quest for a "cracker" plant that can convert a chemical left over from natural gas drilling into compounds widely used by industry. He questions whether state voters are ready to amend the constitution, given how property taxes fund public schools.
"As much as we'd like to see those taxes lowered or eliminated, you cannot do that in a vacuum," Tomblin said.
The West Virginia Constitution also mandates a balanced annual budget, and the state faces a projected funding gap for the budget year that begins July 1. Tomblin has called on most state agencies and programs to reduce their spending by 7.5 percent as a result.
Maloney said that if he must order cuts, he will reduce his salary as governor by the same percentage. He cited his experience as a business owner.
"If I had to force employees to take a cut, I took a cut. You lead by example," Maloney said. "That's something I think we need to look at. A lot of times, I didn't pay myself for months on end."