The Pocahontas Times and Allegheny Mountain Radio hosted a forum for State Senate District 11 candidates last Wednesday evening. Democratic incumbent candidate Greg Tucker and Republican candidate Robert Karnes participated in the forum.
During the forum, the candidates answered questions on a number of topics. For each question, the first respondent had two minutes; the other candidate had one minute to respond; followed by a one-minute comment by the first respondent. A transcript of the first three questions and responses follow. See a video of the forum in its entirety on the video page of The Pocahontas Times website.
Question 1: A recent poll showed that protection of and access to clean water is a top priority for West Virginia voters. What would you do to ensure that the headwaters of eight rivers in Pocahontas County are protected?
Tucker: The Senate took the lead with what we referred to as the tank bill this past session. We took steps to protect the waters. Frankly, it’s our most valuable asset. It is our most precious resource that we have to offer our citizens in West Virginia. It has to be protected at all costs. I think with the tank bill, there are some issues with the oil and gas industry that the Legislature and Governor are addressing currently. But we have taken steps. We realize, following the catastrophe in Kanawha County, if it can happen there, it can happen here and in my home county. So, we did take those steps and I believe that we have a work in progress but we have a great start to protecting our waters.
Karnes: I think the first thing that we need to keep in mind, anytime we’re trying to protect a resource, particularly as vital as water, is just using simple best practices. I think that’s something that we can all support. I think some of the things that have been done in the state – and I’ll reference the same tank bill – don’t necessarily have the effect that is desired. And a lot of times, it’s more like a shotgun approach, as opposed to a very precision approach. That actually very much describes what the problems are with the tank bill that was passed earlier this year. A bill that was originally intended to hit less than 1,000 tanks across the state apparently is going to hit somewhere between 50 and 80 thousand tanks across the state. In addition to trying to protect us from chemicals, as was involved in the spill down in the Kanawha Valley, we’re actually requiring municipalities to inspect water tanks – so that we can make sure that water, for example, doesn’t spill into the water – which, for me, doesn’t make any sense. It’s the type of regulation that does nothing to serve the people of West Virginia. It does nothing to keep our water cleaner, but does drive up the cost of compliance with regulation. And anytime you drive up the cost of compliance with these regulations, you’re going to kill jobs. Right now, we just can’t afford that. It’s a balance; it’s always going to be a balance, but we have to slow down a little bit and make sure we do things right.
Tucker: Municipalities and public water districts already inspect their tanks. The best thing that has come from this tank bill, that we passed last session, is that we now know where these tanks are. Before, they didn’t know where they were. Now, at the very minimum, we have been able to identify these tanks and there have been steps taken for the most critical tanks to be inspected, and the others can be self-inspected. It is a work in progress, like a lot of legislation, but a lot of good things have come out of it – the biggest of which is now we know where these tanks are.
Question 2: A fire destroyed a half-city block in Marlinton last November. A committee working on the economic revitalization of the Town of Marlinton was unable to obtain state funding for an economic development plan. What will you do to promote economic development in Pocahontas County?
Karnes: I think a lot of times we are chasing our tail when we expect the state to always be the lead in developing these types of plans. One of the things I’ve learned from states outside of West Virginia is that, quite often, the reality is – if your state economy is well set up for business, the state is not needed to serve such a vital role as that. Because you have businesses and opportunities that are wanting to move into your state and your city and your county. So, instead of having the state fumble around and try to figure out a solution, you’re actually just simply guiding businesses to the best part of your state, the best part of your county for development. So, the best thing that we can do for development in Pocahontas County and across the State of West Virginia is to improve the business climate. If we can get businesses moving into West Virginia, then a lot of the question, that you just asked me, is no longer relevant.
Tucker: First of all, I worked very hard with the folks here in Pocahontas County and Delegate Hartman and Delegate Campbell to help obtain funding for the feasibility for economic development in Marlinton. The fire here was devastating. The best thing we can do for economic development, especially in the tourism industry, is restore funding for what’s called the MAPP program. What that is is monies that the state used to – at one point it was as much as $12 million, but it’s been cut down to less than $1 million – these are matching grants for people in the tourism industry who want to go out and promote West Virginia. We’re getting beat to death now because we’ve reduced our funding, while other states have increased their funding. We’ve lost tourism because other states have out-marketed us. And we need to restore that. Studies have shown that for every dollar that we invest in that, there’s a six dollar return. I fought very hard to restore MAPP funding in the past legislative session and I intend to do it again this coming session. There are 46,000 people who work in the tourism industry. We need to support them and we need those funds restored, so that we can promote what we do best, and that’s what Pocahontas County does best.
Karnes: Part of the reason why we have this cut in funding, for these particular types of programs – and other states do spend money on those programs – it always comes back to the business environment. As we know, last year there was a 7.5 percent cut in the state budget, pretty much across the board. As a state, we’re very much broke because we have done a tremendous amount of damage to our private sector economy. So, in order to have money to invest in programs like that, it’s absolutely imperative that we create a business environment that will again create jobs, create growth, and so on.
Question 3: The Internet service for many Pocahontas County residents falls well below the minimum definition of broadband accessibility. What will you do to get improved broadband service in Pocahontas County?
Tucker: I’m glad you asked that question because the biggest question I received, once I became the senator for Pocahontas County, was the broadband service in this county. I know that it is decent in parts of the county and not so good in other parts of the county. In fact, we had a conversation about this before we went on the air. What happens in the State Legislature and in other areas is – they tend to focus on the cities and the urban areas and they get service first. But we have just as much entitlement to broadband service in the rural areas – in Pocahontas, Nicholas, Pendleton – as the cities do. The grants that were given out by the state were intended to do the middle mile and that didn’t work out so well. So, I think the focus needs to be on the rural areas and that would be a priority of mine for Pocahontas County.
Karnes: I’m always a little bit skeptical when the solution is coming from the government. I’m sure most of the people and yourselves here tonight are familiar with the quote routergate problem that we have in West Virginia, where millions of dollars were spent on routers that were well beyond any need that could exist within the counties. That’s actually the field that I work in, so I’m quite sure those routers were at least 20 times more expensive than a router that was actually needed in those situations. So, when the government gets involved in these types of projects, a lot of time what we see is a tremendous amount of waste and not much actual use or value come out of the backside of it. So, for me, we need to lean more in the direction of private sector solutions to bring broadband into the area. As we look around the United States, yet again, we see state after state where broadband is brought into communities, not because of the government grant, but because people demand it and because the private sector then supplies that demand. Sometimes, perhaps it makes sense, in terms of the grants and so on, to at least get things kick-started. But I think if we want to get real value for our dollar, we have to look at the private sector.
Tucker: Pocahontas County is a rural county. You’re not going to get a private enterprise to come in here and do broadband, unless the government is involved. In Pocahontas County, it’s not going to happen. So, that’s a need that this county has, but the government is going to have to fill it because the private sector is not going to fill it.
A video of the entire State Senate candidate forum can be seen at pocahontastimes.com. Early voting began on October 22. Election Day is November 4.