Wednesday night’s Delegate Forum, sponsored by the Greenbrier County Chamber of Commerce and hosted by the Greenbrier Valley Theatre was attended by up to 60 people. Mike Kidd, as moderator, introduced the candidates and tossed out questions to be fielded by the candidates, submitted from the chamber’s website and audience members.
Incumbents Ray Canterbury and George “Boogie” Ambler, both serving District 42 as House Republicans, are opposed by first-time Democratic candidate Stephen Baldwin, pastor of Ronceverte ‘s Presbyterian Church.
Predictable positions were heard from both sides on the various issues posed by the questions, but also a surprise or two as well.
The question of special interest groups flooding the elections with PAC donations prompted Baldwin to comment that there’s too much money in politics, stating that he has sent back $6,000, whether or not he agreed with the position of the donor. “Leaders need to step up and not take the money. West Virginia shouldn’t be for sale,” he said.
Ambler’s response was flat out, “I take PAC money.” He said he did not do fundraisers or ask for money from his constituents. If accepting funds from a PAC, a candidate must retain his integrity, he declared, “I vote what’s best for my district.” Canterbury said he was both PAC and locally supported and has thus far raised $15,000. He said his local supporters “believe I share their values.” Beyond that, his personal honor and integrity is beyond influence, he said.
On the question of increasing the sales tax, Canterbury said he is looking at Virginia’s broadened tax base that includes taxes for services and goods, plus gas taxes, all of which offers a tax basis West Virginia could also utilize.
“Why take the sales tax off foods? That’s the one tax everyone pays,” Ambler asked, who affirmed he would increase the sales tax. “I will do whatever it takes to create taxes that will provide services to the people.”
Baldwin’s take on raising taxes was to look at other means of serving the public, which he termed “asking tougher questions and spending smarter.”
The most important issue facing the county was generally agreed to be job creation. Ambler said that agricultural opportunities and tourism dollars should also be pushed harder. He said he would like to see a agricultural distribution center developed within the county.
The question of how to fund non-profits with the current tight budget is a difficult issue, Ambler said. Non-profits must rely more and more on the private sector for funding, he said.
Canterbury suggesting expansion of the Neighborhood Investment Program (NIP), established by the West Virginia Legislature to increase charitable giving to local nonprofit organizations.
For Baldwin, the scope of the problem required putting a human face on it. “There are 200 children within the county who are classified as homeless,” he said. Despite the exacerbation of the state’s budget, this issue requires intentional action, he said.
Baldwin said West Virginians have strong attachments to the land in reference to a question about a bill on forced pooling and property owner rights. He said he was opposed to forced pooling of natural gas fracking.
To Canterbury, “the money is in the Utica formation, which lies below the Marcellus formation.” He said a recently passed bill will provide unexpected benefits to landowners in court. Though, incremental, it is better than what we have now, he said. “They will be glad the bill passed.”
Canterbury is referring to a new forced pooling bill for 2016, tweaked from the 2015 version, which was opposed successfully by the Democrats. In addition to the issue of forcing unknown or reluctant neighbors to allow drilling, the bill addresses the issue of post-production deductions from royalty checks. “It seems this new bill has a spoon full of royalty protection sugar to help the forced pooling medicine go down.” – Marcellus Drilling News.
All agreed that a new law designed to make citizens who receive social benefits be drug tested should be applied to all levels of society comprehensively.
There was no disagreement on an issue concerning the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine (WVSOM), under pressure from the state legislature to become a private institution. As Canterbury stated, “This has put the county in a defensive position.”
“Does the state need three medical schools?” he asked. The state is facing a $460 million medical deficit pitting WVSOM against WVU and Marshall for funds. “It’s a frightening thought,” he said. He said he will fight to protect the district, adding that “consolidation is a worse option.”
Ambler said WVSOM is essential to the county and state.
Baldwin said rural practitioners are essential to West Virginia, “Why risk a good thing?” he asked.
Another local issue close to the hearts of many in Greenbrier County and to tourist dollars is the importance of repairing the Greenbrier River Trail, severely damaged by the June flood. Canterbury offered detailed figures, which included an estimate of $30 million will be needed to clean up the biggest landslide covering the trail at mile 13, that would require 160,000 dump truck loads of dirt and debris removal taking 10 years to complete, if hauled 24/7. The trail may never be the same. It is hoped that FEMA can provide funding up to 75 percent.
Budgetary cuts have to be carefully addressed and the three candidates all emphasized the need to be careful to protect those at risk from domestic violence and elder abuse. As Ambler stated, “We must cut with a surgical knife – not a machete.” Baldwin agreed, adding that the budgetary process is also a moral process. “Remember, people are behind the numbers.”
Baldwin affirmed that in supporting “local,” he purchased all his campaign signs and materials from local people. Canterbury and Ambler spent campaign money on local radio and media outlets, and paid a local representative for their signs, of which, the materials, they admitted, came from out of the area, and out of state, as well, according to Baldwin.
The final question showed a split between the two Republican incumbents. During the past legislative session, the House of Delegates passed HB 4005, a bill repealing the state’s prevailing wage law that sets hourly pay rates for workers on state-funded projects with a vote of 55-44, followed an emotional debate on the House floor between supporters and opponents. The vote was largely along party lines, but eight Republicans (including Canterbury) joined the Democrats in opposition to the bill, while no Democrats voted to repeal. The positions of each candidate were: Canterbury – against the repeal; Baldwin – wants to reinstate the prevailing wage rates; Ambler – voted to do away with the law.