CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia legislators from both parties say they are hopeful about the prospects of setting up a "future fund" based on oil and gas revenues, after spending Thursday in meetings in North Dakota learning how that state's legislature went about setting up a similar fund.
Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, who spearheaded the trip of 19 legislators, said that he fully expects to propose legislation that would use oil and gas severance taxes to create a permanent fund for infrastructure, economic development or future tax relief.
"I would expect it would have broad and [party] line-breaking support," said Kessler, who has long advocated for such a fund. "The folks I've talked to from the Republican Party have been favorable.
"I don't think it's liberal or conservative for folks to say it's a good idea to save money."
Sen. Dave Sypolt, R-Preston, one of four Republican legislators who made the trip to North Dakota, said that he's supported a "future fund" for several years and continues to, but that the trip had given him further insights in how to set up a fund and get legislation passed.
"I can see the pathway now that it could be achieved, possibly, and we would perhaps not fall into the same traps that North Dakota fell into the past few years," Sypolt said.
North Dakota's Legacy Fund has collected about $1.3 billion since it was enacted in 2011, exceeding forecasts by about 40 percent. But it was only successful on its third attempt, failing on two prior attempts.
Several years ago North Dakota set up a fund, in state code, to fund future projects through severance taxes. But that fund proved all too tempting for lawmakers to raid when it came time to write annual budgets.
So in 2009, North Dakota attempted to establish a constitutional fund that could not be tapped at a whim whenever finances got a little tight.
Voters rejected that amendment because, lawmakers said Thursday, the percentage of tax revenues it would have collected was far too high.
Finally, in 2010, voters overwhelmingly approved a second constitutional amendment that collects 30 percent of oil and gas tax revenue for the fund and cannot be spent at all until 2017.
Once legislators do begin to tap into the fund, they will primarily be using the interest to fund projects. Spending any of the principal requires at least a two-thirds vote in both legislatures and they can never spend more than 15 percent of the principal in any two-year period.
Sypolt wants to see West Virginia go the constitutional amendment route.
"First of all, it makes it more permanent so it's less likely to be defunded or changed in the near future, and second of all, it makes the participation of the citizens paramount, they must go to the ballots and approve it," he said.