WHEELING - West Virginia Senate President Jeff Kessler plans to introduce legislation today aimed at maximizing the long-term benefits of the state's natural gas drilling boom.
This will be the fourth time since 2011 that Kessler, D-Glen Dale, has attempted to create the West Virginia Future Fund to address the state's future needs. His bill would set aside 25 percent of oil and gas severance tax revenue the state receives above a statutorily set benchmark and deposit it in an investment fund.
The idea has stalled in committee each of the past three years, but the bill Kessler plans to introduce today differs markedly from previous versions in a few ways: The benchmark for severance tax revenue the state must hit before investing in the fund would go from $69 million to $175 million, and it would require the Legislature to allow interest to accrue for just 6 years before spending any of it, compared to 20 years in last year's bill. It also calls on lawmakers to put a constitutional amendment before voters that would limit uses of the money to education enhancement, infrastructure, tax relief and economic development.
Kessler said 29 of 34 senators had agreed to co-sponsor the bill as of Thursday evening. He believes the higher benchmark will ease concerns some colleagues had expressed over the wisdom of socking money away for the future as the state faces a potential $146 million budget shortfall this year.
The state missed a golden opportunity when the coal industry was at its height, according to Kessler. Had West Virginia set aside just 1 percent of its severance tax revenue from the coal industry since 1975, he said, it would have banked $8 billion - the annual income from which he believes would be more than enough to fix the state's aging roads and bridges and offer its teachers a competitive wage.