On Monday, Sept. 24, the Greater Greenbrier Valley Chamber of Commerce hosted a second community forum of this election season at Greenbrier Valley Theatre.
The purpose of the forum is to allow local candidates running for office to answer questions submitted by area residents.
Included in the panel were Delegate George “Boogie” Ambler (R) and Senator Stephen Baldwin (D), both running for State Senate, and House of Delegate candidates Denny Canterbury (R), Steve Malcomb (R), Cindy Lavender-Bowe (D), and current delegate Jeff Campbell (D). The six participants were moderated by Scott Canterbury.
The forum had a change to the answering format to allow for more questions to be addressed overall, however, some found the method unconventional. For each question both Senate candidates were allowed to answer, then one Democratic delegate candidate and one Republican delegate candidate. This meant that the delegate candidates had to alternate answering questions, and were only able to answer every other one.
The forum began with a brief, two-minute long introduction from each candidate, followed by the first question: Will you support additional monies for tourism marketing for the state tourism office? Each candidate is allotted one minute to answer each question.
Ambler (Senate, R): “Absolutely. We have put in additional money this last time. We are getting a return of about $13 dollars for each $1 spent. Tourism is a mainstay in West Virginia, and we know that.”
Baldwin (Senate, D): “Yes, absolutely. We have had an opportunity to do that this year, and we’ve got to do it moving forward, it’s as simple as that.”
Campbell (House, D): “Yes I will. It’s actually $8 for every $1 invested in our tourism that is yielded back into our communities.”
Canterbury (House, R): “Very definitely I would support that. The more money we bring in to the things that we have, the more economic development that it drives to our area and the more jobs it builds for everyone.”
Question two: What solution do you envision for funding PEIA?
Baldwin (Senate, D): “The main problem is that you need nearly $50 million per year in order to keep up with rising costs for PEIA. There are a few ways to do that, we had a bill to increase the natural gas severance tax for example. People don’t realize that everyone talks about increasing it, but the legislature in 2014 actually decreased it. So we are just talking about putting it back where it was in 2014. You can do that, and that would raise more than enough funding. Delegate Campbell had a wonderful proposal regarding absentee landowners, the problem is again, though, that you’ve got to have the political will to do it. And there is not the political will to do it in Charleston right now.”
Ambler (Senate, R): “I’m in full agreement that the funding is still difficult, and we need around $58 million to do that. However, there is a good report out of Charleston right now that looks like we have enough money saved into the system that we may be able to get by another year while that committee continues to work to come up with a correction to the problem. In terms of severance tax as an alternative to do that, the best way to do that is for us to simply increase the production of natural gas. We went from $285 million up to $1.5 billion and we are seeing a huge increase in the severance tax industry.”
Malcomb (House, R): “I’m concerned about PEIA and what’s going on there. I’m not too sure that we shouldn’t privative PEIA. The schoolteachers and state workers should be given a cost of living increase every year. PEIA looks, to me, like it needs to be investigated.”
Lavender-Bowe (House, D): “I’d like to see what happens with the PEIA committee. Let me make this clear: we need a long-term solution with permanent funding that benefits the public employees of West Virginia and not the insurance industry. No more band-aids.”
Question three: How can you assure teachers and parents that you will prioritize funding for public schools, including teacher salary increases, dedicated funding for PEIA, and per-pupil expenditures?
Baldwin (Senate, D): “It’s pretty simple, I’ve been doing it since 2012. That’s how I first got into public service was on the Board of Education. I spent a lot of time in public schools, seeing what is actually happening on the ground. I was amazed when I went to Charleston, and people there talking about education and schools and they talk about how it was when they went to school 50 years ago. Things have changed a lot, and if you haven’t been spending time in the schools you don’t understand what’s actually happening there right now. In terms of a policy proposal, what we need are smaller classroom sizes. It’s really that simple, that’s really the most important policy change we can make for student achievement in West Virginia.”
Ambler (Senate, R): “After the 25 year career that I’ve had in the education field, I think that we’ve come to a number of issues, and obviously classroom size is always an issue, for teachers. The second part of dealing with this is after spending four years on the educational committee and dealing with the issues that were brought up, I think part of the biggest issue that we can do is take a good, hard look at where we want our educational system to go and what it’s going to look like 10 years from now.We pay around $12,600 per year for each pupil, and around $4,000 of that is for sins of the past, talking about the teacher retirement system that was underfunded.”
Canterbury (House, R): “This is something that needs to be looked at each year, because to start with, the PEIA health insurance cost is going up for everyone, and they’re rising much faster than any dedicated source we could dedicate to them. As our extraction industry is growing, we are getting a surplus in the last few months. This could be money to give teachers raises.”
Campbell (House, D): “One thing that we have to do is protect the school-aide formula, make sure that we continue to fund our schools every year. You mentioned PEIA, and Senator Baldwin mentioned a bill that I had in the last legislative session that they didn’t run, House Bill 4605. What that bill does is addressed the absentee land ownership here in West Virginia. Right now in this state we have out-of-state entities who own a lot of our property that isn’t being used, 12.5 million acres. My bill, House Bill 4605, would create a $4 per acre tax that would raise a total of $50 million for PEIA, all of it would have went to that. By the way, they are taxed at a lesser rate than what everybody else is taxed for their land. One thing we have to look at is the business inventory tax, and in Greenbrier County I know in the last year we had $723,000, of which 74.5 percent of that goes to our schools, $545,613 that we can’t afford to lose.”
Question four: How do you feel about making social security benefits non-taxable as far as West Virginia income tax goes, if you support this, what method would you consider acceptable to the public to replace the lost income?
Baldwin (Senate, D): “We are one of the few states that taxes social security, we shouldn’t be doing that, but what it comes down to in the end is how are you going to replace the revenue? I’ve heard one candidate here tonight say to use the severance tax and use it for tourism and PEIA and public education and everything else. You can’t do that. You have to make a decision at some point. Reasonable people have to sit down and decide how to fund the state government. There are ways to do that, but there aren’t enough reasonable people to do that there right now.”
Ambler (Senate, R): “I don’t think that there’s any doubt that all of us think it would be nice to have social security be non-taxable, much in the same manner that we did with the veterans’ pension plan. But, in order to fund that, it would be a combination thing, but one of the biggest ways would be downsizing the government on the programs that we have. Taking a good hard look, which we’ve done in the past several years, trying to cut the size of government down and making people responsible for themselves instead of making the government their primary beneficiary. I think it is a priority that needs to be looked at, and we will find the funding.”
Lavender-Bowe (House, D): “West Virginia struggles are felt most acutely by our senior population. You all know somebody that is raising their grandchildren because of the current drug crisis in our state. There are many states across the nation that do not tax social security as income, I think we are only one of 13. I think it’s time to end that tax, and the way to do that is to shift the tax burden from the working class back to the corporations. As Senator Baldwin mentioned earlier, the severance tax was decreased in recent years, as was the corporate tax. Those are two places to start to look, and if you send the right people to Charleston, they will fix that shift off of the backs of the working people of West Virginia.”
Malcomb (House, R): “One of my first priorities is no state tax on social security. This has to be done, it should have been done a long time ago. The state is supposed to have an overage that would help. We need to check state waste. I think a lot of these agencies, and I’m not talking about the school, if they were investigated I think we would find plenty of money out there to fund that. There’s no way we should be taxing social security on our elders.”
Question five: Will you do all you can do to get medical marijuana passed into law this next session?
Amber (Senate, R): “Medical marijuana is supposed to go into effect on July 1, 2019 anyway. Again, I spoke in favor of medical marijuana on the House floor, voted yes for it, and will continue to. It is something that I truly want to see take place as a medicine to our people who need it. And that’s where I’m at with it.”
Baldwin (Senate, D): “Yes. I did in the Senate, and we had a bill ready. What did the House do? The House sat on it. And we’re not doing everything we can to let medical marijuana be a possibility now, you have had two obstacles. I’m going to be very honest. Speaker of the House Tim Armstead, who is not speaker of the house any more, you also have U.S. Attorney Mike Stuart. Stuart is now filing civil lawsuits against hemp farmers in West Virginia and potentially hurting other business who maybe wanted to come here to Greenbrier County, due to his personal vendetta, when we are just trying to help sick people. It is absurd to me. Since I have time left, I want to talk about government programs. You know what happens when we cut government programs? I’ve figured it out over the last two years, we cut programs that help people. We don’t cut where the fat really is, oh it’s there, and you don’t have to look hard to find it, but that’s not where we’ve cut.”
Campbell (House, D): “Yes, absolutely. Senator Baldwin is correct, the House did sit on the bill the last night of the session, you should have been there. During the last hours of the session everybody from every committee was introducing their entire staff and we wasted time on the floor when we could have been pushing this legislation through. Last spring I had someone come to me asking me to please support medical marijuana, I said I already do. This person had gone through a bout with cancer and said that their doctor told them that if they could get it, get it. It will help you. This person said that it did help them. I absolutely support medical marijuana. It’s something we need to help people in this state.”
Canterbury (House, R): “I definitely would do that because I know there are people somewhere that need it as a painkiller that are suffering. And if we can stop human suffering, we’re supposed to do it.”
Lavender-Bowe (House, D): “I’m 100 percent in support of medical marijuana, immediate legislation. Not a few years down the road. I think it’s ridiculous that nothing has been done. And one more thing, keep big pharma out of it. We don’t need to help them make any more money in this state.”
Question six: If elected, what will you do to ensure funds allocated for disaster relief are promptly spent for that purpose instead of being hoarded in Charleston?
Baldwin (Senate, D): “You know, I spent around two hours today working on that very thing. I’ve spent two and a half years working on that. Some of it does sit in Charleston, but the truth is that a lot of it doesn’t even make it to Charleston. Now, I’ve sat on the joint committee on flooding since I was elected into office, and I’ve been asking since January- since January- to have FEMA and HUD come before our committee. And do you know who has not been invited to come? FEMA or HUD. It is a very frustrating process, and I get that homeowners are particularly frustrated. What I’ve been working on today is acquisitions and buyouts. There are millions of dollars worth in Greenbrier County that have been oversubscribed, so that means that folks have just continually been told to be patient, we’re done with being patient. It’s been two and a half years.”
Ambler (Senate, R): “Well, to make one point clear, the Senator said that he has been on the committee for two years, and it has been his option at any time to make a motion to the committee to have those people come and he has not done that. The committee itself is working very diligently in attempting to talk with the agencies that are involved, and we all know it’s the National Guard and General Hoyer now. I think that the program we have outlined in the last week that has come out through news sources and things certainly indicates that we are on the right track. The $150 million that was allocated back in February seems to have gotten bogged down, and it certainly did, we all understand that we should not be two years waiting to have relief for the people that have suffered in 2016. But do keep one other thing in mind, we have had a number of other tragedies in the state they are four, five, and six years old, it takes a while to work through and I understand that and nobody likes that, but that is just the fact of the way things work.”
Malcomb (House, R): “I’m one that likes to use the newspaper, and I guarantee you that if they keep in Charleston you’re gonna know about it state-wide because I will go to the news. They can call it fake news or whatever, but any time that I’ve used the news to help, they’ve helped us with a lot of important venues.”
Lavender-Bowe (House, D): “As a founding member of the Greenbrier Valley Flood Relief Committee, I know how people can work together when they come together. I worked with Senator Baldwin at that time, and he was working just as a pastor and we were working as regular people to make a difference, and that’s who immediately made the difference in the lives of those people affected by the disaster. I guarantee you, whatever it takes, whether it’s jumping up and down, yelling, laser eyes, I’ll do what I can to make things happen in Charleston.”
Question seven: What is your stance on Amendment 1? According to Ballotpedia.com, for West Virginia Amendment 1, a ‘yes’ vote supports this amendment to add language to the West Virginia Constitution stating that “nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of abortion.” A ‘no’ vote opposes this amendment to add language to the West Virginia Constitution stating that “nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of abortion.”
Fifteen Republican state legislators sponsored this amendment in the legislature. On February 9, 2018, the state Senate voted 25-9 to pass the amendment. All 22 Republican senators voted yes on the amendment. Of the 12 Democratic senators, three voted yes on the amendment and nine voted no.
On February 8, 2018, the Senate rejected changes to the amendment to make exceptions for abortion in cases of rape or incest, or if determined necessary to save the life of the mother. The exceptions were proposed by Senator Corey Palumbo.
In the state House, 67 delegates needed to vote for the amendment to put the measure before voters in November 2018. Republicans held a 64-36 majority at the time of the vote on March 5, 2018. The amendment was approved 73-25 with two members not voting. A total of 63 Republicans and 10 Democrats voted for the amendment. Twenty-five Democrats opposed the amendment. (Source: ballotpedia.com)
Ambler (Senate, R): “My stance on Amendment 1 is simple, it’s yes. I will tell you that I’m extremely concerned any time that we have the opportunity to present something that says that it’s an anti-abortion bill. The issue that I have as much concern with is the fact that they voted no to bring this out to you, the people. This thing is bigger than 134 people in Charleston and the government. This thing should be allowed for you, the public, the voters, to get on Amendment 1 to decide if you want your money to do for elective abortions. That’s what the issue is here. The elective abortions. We have nearly $10 million into this program in the last seven or eight years. Folks, I believe that you are smart enough, and can make a decision on whether you want this or not. I don’t think the other side even thought of it that way. They were making the decision for you.”
Baldwin (Senate, D): “I voted against Amendment 1. I think many of you have seen my video that I made immediately after that vote was taken, and you saw how much I struggled with that. I’m pro-life, but I did not vote for Amendment 1. Why? Because Amendment 1 is not pro-life. It presents itself as something that it’s not. It presents itself as if this is about elective abortions, about Medicaid funding, it’s not. It’s about medically necessary. For me, it was really simple. I wanted to make sure that the life of the mother is protected, because I’m pro-life. I don’t know anyone that’s pro-life who doesn’t think the life of the mother should be protected, you have to be pro-all of life. So we offered an amendment just to make it crystal clear in Amendment 1 that the life of the mother would be preserved… and it was voted down. West Virginians For Life is a special interest group and the sent out an email saying that we couldn’t do that, they wanted no exceptions. So it was voted down. That’s not pro-life, so how can you vote for it?”
Campbell (House, D): “Before it was Amendment 1 it was SJR12, and it came through the legislature. I voted no on it. I voted no on it because it did not protect the life of the mother, it did not protect victims of rape or incest. The reason I voted no is because it did not have those protections. Medicaid does not pay for any elective procedures. I don’t care if it’s an abortion or a nose job, Medicaid does not pay for any elective procedure. Senator Baldwin spoke of that amendment, which I have a copy of, and it was Senator Palumdo from Kanawha County who put an amendment forward to Amendment 1 on February 8, and it was voted down by a roll call vote of 22-7. So that’s why I voted no on it. You can make your own decision, but just make sure to read it first so you know what you’re voting on.”
Canterbury (House, R): “I am yes on Amendment 1. What this amendment actually says is that nothing in the state constitution secures or protects a right to abortions, or requires the funding of abortions. In 1980 the Supreme Court in the case of Harris v. McRade, ruled that Roe v. Wade created a right, but not an entitlement, to abortion. Since then, Medicaid dollars have been limited to the funding of abortions that threaten the life of the mother, and in rape or incest. Only 16 states guarantee a right to an abortion, 34 have no such guarantee. So this amendment will bring us in line with the rest of the country. 35,000 abortions have been had in West Virginia since this came about. This is not about the issue, it’s about taking this from the court and giving it back to the legislature.”
Lavender-Bowe (House, D): “As the only person here who’s felt a baby grow in their uterus, and as the only person at this table who has been sexually assaulted, I’m going to speak to this question. I am adamantly opposed to Amendment 1. We should leave it up to West Virginia families and their doctors to make this decision, not government. This is ridiculous, it does not protect the life of the mother, it does not protect innocent children who are victims of incest, and it does not protect victims of sexual violence. One in six women are raped in the state of West Virginia, keep that in mind. They do have a right to protect their health.”
Question eight: Do you agree with raising the minimum wage from $8.75 to what level over what period of time? What about raising cash wage minimums for tipped waiters?
Baldwin (Senate, D): “Yes, we need to raise the minimum wage. There’s talk about $15, I think that arbitrary, I don’t think it fits West Virginia. We need to raise it, but progressively.”
Ambler (Senate, R): “If we would all tip workers at 20 percent, they would probably be pretty solid with the tips that they get. The irony of it is that we have a lot of people that don’t tip at all. If we all do our part I’m sure that would work. As far as raising the minimum wage, there’s nothing wrong with raising the minimum wage at all, whether it’s over a three, four, or five year period. But we must keep something in mind, when you raise those wages on the employer who is offering the product, then we, the buyer of those products, pick up the cost. They are passed right on to us. That has always been it, it’s in the supply and demand of what we deal with in our economic society. Yes, more money, but understand it will cost you more for the product.”
Malcomb (House, R): “I ran a restaurant, and I know about tips and how it works. Some pay and some don’t. If you raise the minimum wage on these restaurant owners, as Delegate Ambler says, the consumer will pay the bill. Everything comes back to you, the consumer.”
Campbell (House, D): “I am in favor of raising the minimum wage, right now it’s $8.75 an hour, where do we go with it? That’s a great question. There seems to be so much debate on what the threshold is, what can these small businesses be able to take for a minimum wage? I think that the other gentlemen made some good points about tipped wages. If everyone would pay 20 percent, that would go a long way towards helping some of these people in the service industries with wages as well.”
Question nine: What initiatives would you propose to bring competitive broadband to all of the state?
Ambler (Senate, R): “The irony to that is I was on broadband for my first two years in Charleston, and one of the major suppliers said they had around 85 percent of the state covered. In order to move the state forward, we are going to have to have the government somewhat involved in the direction of where broadband is going. We need to bring this up. It is a fact of life now that businesses operate from the computer. Broadband has to be available. I would certainly support any and all initiatives to continue moving forward, which the Republicans have.”
Baldwin (Senate, D): “For me it’s about the last mile. If you get in these discussions about broadband, there’s a lot of talk about the middle mile, which is getting it out and about in communities. That’s not where we have the problem in West Virginia anymore. We’ve gotten the middle mile, but we haven’t gotten the last mile. For example, my wife and I have some property over in Gap Mills in Monroe County, and we can see where the internet ends, but Frontier will not bring it up the mountain. Many of you all have the same experience, it’s the last mile. And the reason the last mile is the last to come it that it’s expensive. So, Delegate Ambler is right, the government will have to be involved in making sure that the final mile is done. There was a proposal this last legislative session to put Wi-Fi enabled devices within city limits on telephone poles. The problem there is that it doesn’t help the people who still don’t have broadband. If you live in Lewisburg, you have it, so that’s not the problem. It’s the last mile.”
Lavender-Bowe (House, D): “I think that bringing broadband to all the state is key to changing and supporting our workforce. It would provide multiple opportunities for people to telecommute. I telecommuted for two years for a website company out of Arizona, where the employees were from around the world. It was embarrassing how often my internet was down. I think they thought I was slacking and just wanted a day off because they couldn’t believe there was a town in the United States that did not have reliable internet access. And I live in the city limits of Lewisburg. So, when you’re talking about the outlying areas, there are opportunities being missed for folks to work from home and look for new sources of income. I think we need to do whatever it takes as a state to make that happen. Maybe that means we build our own broadband with our own workforce.”
Canterbury (House, R): “This is going to be hard to do because of the cost, like someone mentioned a moment ago in Gap Mills and places way off of the line where they don’t want to go to. These companies want to make a profit, so we need to look at the area and what we can do to help them to this properly.”
The candidates wrapped up the forum with a two minute closing statement apiece before adorning the forum. Election day is Tuesday, Nov. 6.