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Senate leader pushes energy 'future fund' as economic safeguard

SOUTH CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State Senate President Jeff Kessler said Monday that West Virginia leaders continue to support his proposal to stash away tax money generated by West Virginia's booming natural gas industry into a special fund designed to stabilize the state's economy in the future.

Kessler, D-Marshall, said his "future fund" proposal remains viable, even though state revenues remain tight and most state agencies faces budget cuts this year.

"If we are ever going to break this cycle of poverty in this state, we can't just worry about spending this year's budget, living hand to mouth, every year," Kessler said at The Associated Press Legislative Lookahead in South Charleston. "We have to have a fund set aside. It's simple economics."

Kessler and other state legislative leaders traveled to North Dakota last year to study that state's future fund.

Under Kessler's proposal, a specified percentage above current severance tax collections would be set aside for the future, and the money couldn't be touched until a certain date.

Kessler said the fund could be used for everything from increasing teacher salaries to fixing roads and bridges. The fund also might enable the state to do away with some business taxes, he said.

"We have something that's in huge demand [natural gas] that people are willing to pay an enormous amount for that we are sitting on in West Virginia," Kessler said. "We need to save a portion of that money and develop from that resource to diversify our economy."

Kessler said he believes Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and House Speaker Tim Miley will support his proposal during the upcoming legislative session, which starts Wednesday.

Corky DeMarco, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Gas Association, said his group would oppose any proposals that raise severance taxes paid by companies that drill for natural gas.

"The concept is great," DeMarco said. "We should have been doing this 75 years ago.

"But I'm concerned about our competitive advantage with other states," he continued. "We compete in mineral extraction and can't do so by raising severance taxes in West Virginia."

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


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