By Sarah Mansheim
Candidates for the State Senate and the WV House of Delegates joined the community last Tuesday night at Greenbrier Valley Theatre in the second of a series of candidate forums sponsored by the Greater Greenbrier Chamber of Commerce. The forum was moderated by chamber Secretary Mike Kidd.
State Senator Ron Miller (D) and state Senate candidate Duane Zobrist (R) joined House of Delegates candidates George “Boogie” Ambler (R, incumbent), Ray Canterbury (R, incumbent), Dr. Coy Flowers (D) and Courtney Jesser (D) to answer a series of questions put forth by Kidd.
Miller and Zobrist are facing off to represent the 42nd District (Greenbrier, Monroe and Summers counties) in Charleston, while Flowers, Jesser, Ambler and Canterbury are looking for votes to represent the 10th District (Greenbrier, Fayette, Summers and Monroe counties) in the House.
The candidates’ questions were submitted in advance by members of the community, and each candidate had 90 seconds to answer. Candidates all seemed to speak across party lines on many topics. The Mountain Messenger will present the questions and the candidates’ answers.
Do you support drug testing for welfare recipients?
Flowers said no, because drug testing doesn’t work. He said the states that have tested welfare recipients spend more on drug testing than those using other prevention and rehabilitation methods. He stated that a program he is involved with at Greenbrier Valley Medical Center has reduced prenatal drug use from 22 percent to 6 percent. “I’ve proven I know how to combat substance abuse,” he said.
Canterbury said he supports drug testing on a random basis with the caveat of not punishing children at home. He said children should be removed from the homes of those who test positive, and their welfare benefits should go with them.
Ambler also favored random drug testing. “At some point we have to make people accountable for their actions,” he said.
Zobrist spoke out against drug testing. “I believe it is an overstep of government authority and a violation of recipients’ civil rights,” he said. He added that creating economic stability with a well-paying job environment will help to get people off of welfare.
Miller said no, and kept his statement short and sweet agreeing with Zobrist that drug testing is a violation of civil liberties along with Flowers’ assertion that it just doesn’t work.
Jesser said that at this time she didn’t support drug testing. She said there is a need to focus on rehabilitation programs, education and helping citizens get off welfare.
Do you support an increase in tobacco tax?
Candidates went down the party line with this question: Republicans were against the tax and Democrats for it. Canterbury said he’d voted in favor of it in the past, but wouldn’t vote further. Ambler and Zobrist spoke out in favor of broadening the tax base as opposed to hitting the same group of poor people over and over with another “sin tax.”
The Democrats were in favor of a tobacco tax increase. Miller admitted he’d voted against it in the past, but said public health demands a deterrent. Flowers added that healthcare savings by reducing tobacco use, along with the increased tax base, would be a boon for the state. Both Flowers and Jesser said that the tobacco tax could help relieve the state’s “rainy day fund,” which they said lawmakers had to tap into last year.
Do you support term limits on government offices?
Canterbury strayed from the party line on the dais, stating that he is against term limits by law. “Term limits are good in theory,” he said, but he said having seniority in Charleston can help lawmakers get their work done. “Voters put down their own term limits,” he said.
The other Republicans spoke out in favor of term limits. “It’s a great thing to do,” said Ambler. “I advocate term limits – 10 years in the House, a couple or three terms in the Senate. Over time I think (representatives) forget what they were hired to do.”
Zobrist agreed, stating if elected, he plans to limit his own time to two years.
Miller, Jesser and Flowers all spoke out against term limits. Miller and Jesser held lawmakers to the task of self-governing their careers in Charleston by stepping aside when necessary, while Flowers stated his real concern is “dark money” coming in from out-of-state special interest groups and their influence over local politics.
Do you support a ban on fracking and what are your thoughts on the proposed pipeline?
“Emotion” was the word of the hour on this question, with nearly every candidate remarking what a hot-button issue fracking and proposed pipelines are. Candidates were quick to point out that fracking will not happen in Greenbrier County due to both karst issues and the fact that the Marcellus Shale deposit under the county has been deemed too shallow to drill, with Ambler noting the mineral lease on his land was not renewed by the gas company this year because anymore, fracking in Greenbrier County is a no go. However, many said, extraction drives the state’s economy.
Regarding the pipeline, Ambler said that safety should be the number one priority when bringing any pipelines through, and expressed a need to make sure the environment is protected.
“Let’s not just jump from coal to fracking. Let’s focus on other energy sources,” said Jesser, who also said she’d like to see legislation requiring all companies to register fracking chemicals with the state.
Canterbury argued that such chemical registration is a federal issue. Moreover, he said, the use of multiple-casing gas wells will help offset the danger of frack waste leaching into the ground in other areas of the state. “West Virginia needs this resource for our budget,” he said.
Miller echoed the Dems, calling upon his own voting record as one who voted for a ban on fracking in karst areas without extensive studies. Regarding pipelines that may cross the district, he stated he had no opinion yet.
Zobrist and Flowers found themselves on the same side of the question: pro-business, pro-energy and pro-environmental protection. “Balance” is key, said Zobrist, and Flowers agreed, vowing to be the voice for health and safety while also being pro-energy.
Do you support the governor and attorney general’s decision to not fight gay marriage?
The dais’ two ordained ministers, Miller and Zobrist, volleyed back and forth their concerns whether the state can mandate church law – whether or not a church can choose to marry a gay couple without breaking the law.
“I’m not going to have to perform weddings my church doesn’t want,” said Miller, but Zobrist disagreed, worrying that the legislature may now prevent churches from “acting within their own doctrines.”
Otherwise, Miller said, “The courts made the decision. We move forward.” Meanwhile, Zobrist applauded the governor and the attorney general in their decision to protect the Constitution.
“Here’s the chance for less government control,” said Jesser, stating her support of gay marriage.
For his part, Flowers joked, “I knew everyone would be looking at me for this question, and I repeat what I said last spring: it’s not a legislative issue!
“I believe (Governor Earl Ray Tomblin and Attorney General Patrick Morrisey) make the correct non-decision,” said Flowers. “I do believe this is the conservative thing to do.”
Canterbury disagreed. “It’s unfortunate that judges ruled from the bench” on this issue, he said, arguing that the legislature will now have to deal with discrimination issues. “It’s very unfortunate,” he said.
“My beliefs are not the issue,” said Ambler. “The is the rule of law. The Constitution is the law of the land, and the Legislature will make decisions to serve West Virginians.”
The back roads are a mess. How do you propose to fund infrastructure?
Jesser spoke about how the deep potholes on the back roads create a financial burden on West Virginians via vehicle repairs. The need for investment in roads and bridges could be funded through expanded tolls and the tobacco tax, she said.
Flowers agreed – he said the area needs a complete investment in roads, broadband service, bridges, airports and more in order to connect West Virginia with the outside world and compete nationally.
Canterbury identified oil and gas under the Ohio River – land that he said now belongs to the department of natural resources – as worth $1 billion. “We need to revisit the language in our constitution” in order to make money on those wells he said, and not raise taxes.
Ambler, a former employee of the state road, suggested auditing the West Virginia Division of Highways, and cutting back on waste within the department. Boosting road work would not only repair the infrastructure he said, but create jobs as well. The delegate also called out the fracking industry for their destruction of the roads in the northern part of the state.
Zobrist again called for a broadening of the tax base. “Pass fees onto those using the assets,” he said, including frack haulers and out-of-state travelers. He also called for less waste in the highways department.
Miller suggested finding funding through DMV fees and user fees, also agreeing with Ambler’s assertion that addressing waste within the Division of Highways, and in all state government, may help free up some funds.
Where do you stand on campaign finance reform?
“I’m all for it,” said Flowers. “One hundred thousand dollars worth of advertising poured in that was all untrue in 2012. It’s going to happen again.” Flowers was referring to a direct mail campaign in which an out-of-state Super PAC attacked Democratic house of delegates candidates Glenn Singer and Steve Hunter right before the November election. Both Singer and Hunter lost their bids.
Canterbury said that while the legislature has supported finance reform, the courts have struck the changes down. He identified it as a First Amendment issue, with anyone, even corporations, having the right to support any candidate. He did agree with Flowers in that he said he did not like outside influence on West Virginia voters.
“I am a target of outside special interest groups on TV ads,” said Ambler, stating that he’s in favor of campaign finance reform. However, he said, the onus still falls on the voter. “Special interest groups have impact, but they cannot cast a vote for you,” he said.
Zobrist went for brevity on the issue: “Disclosure (of funding) is key,” he said.
“When corporations become people, it becomes a real problem,” said Miller, asserting that outside interest groups are spending millions of dollars in West Virginia. “We’ve got to get a grip on it.”
Jesser spoke out in favor of campaign finance reform, too. “TV commercials are driving everyone crazy,” she said, and added how unfortunate it is that special interest groups are bringing such negativity into West Virginians’ homes. She advised voters to research the candidate, and not simply listen to the commercials when deciding whom to vote for.
What should be done about rampant drug abuse in West Virginia?
“Demand accountability,” said Canterbury, and create an economic system that can provide hope to the people of the state.
Ambler agreed on the need for economic growth. “Job opportunities give people a sense of hope and pride,” he said.
Zobrist raised some eyebrows in the forum by describing the five things he thinks will help resolve the issue: education, job opportunities, job training opportunities, strengthening treatment options, and finally, decriminalizing some drug classes, including marijuana.
Miller echoed the sentiments of his colleagues regarding increasing job opportunities, and also spoke out for the need to redevelop family structures and communities. “We need to come together,” he said.
Jesser agreed with Miller. “We need to work together,” she said, to increase education opportunities, in-school drug prevention programs and job growth. However, she said, many jobs are available in the state; unfortunately, the work force cannot pass the drug tests required for hiring. Therefore, she said, there is a need for rehabilitative program expansions as well.
Flowers spoke out against the common conception that drug abuse and addiction is only a scourge of the poor, instead indicating that people in all economic strata struggle with addiction. He said that the combination of strong law enforcement and rehabilitative programs can help. “I have a proven record” on beating addiction said Flowers, referring to his medical practice’s successful drug program.
The general election will be held Tuesday, Nov. 4.