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Business, education candidates' priorities

Oct. 10, 2012 @ 11:40 PM

HUNTINGTON -- A better business climate and more educational opportunities were some of the key topics discussed by candidates seeking District 16's three seats in the West Virginia House of Delegates. The winners will represent areas of Cabell and Lincoln counties.

The five-way race pits incumbent Democrats Kevin Craig and Jim Morgan and challenger Sean Hornbuckle against Republican incumbent Carol Miller and challenger Mike Davis. All five candidates ran unopposed in May's primary election.

The Herald-Dispatch recently interviewed the candidates, asking each for their top priorities should they be elected. Each mentioned desires to focus upon economic development, state budgeting and education.

Economic development was the top priority for Craig and Davis. It also was mentioned in relation to budgeting by Morgan and Miller.

Craig, vice president of business development for Natural Resource Partners, sees a need for a well-educated, qualified work force in the mining, natural gas and chemical industries. He hopes that can be achieved with legislation that gives local universities and community colleges greater authority over curriculum and course development. He insists that will help local institutions better meet the demands of the local work force.

"We are taking that roadblock away," he said.

Davis also mentioned a need for work force development. He said state funding could be allocated to ensure certain courses are taught in certain areas.

Craig believes increased medical research could be another avenue of economic development. He supports an extension of the state's "Bucks for Brains" program, saying five additional years would provide participants, such as Marshall University, more time to raise matching funds for research and development.

Morgan believes further judicial reform may be needed. He cited other studies saying West Virginia is just one of few states without an intermediate appeals court. The state Supreme Court has made some changes, as opponents of an intermediate court say the costs would be too great.

Morgan is willing to give those efforts a try, but he said such an expenditure might be necessary.

"By instituting an intermediate court for $10 million per year and it removes West Virginia from the very bottom of the preferred legal climate for industry, I think it'd probably be worth it," he said.

Miller, Craig and Davis mentioned reductions in corporate property and inventory taxes to help the state be more competitive in landing manufacturing jobs. Morgan spoke in favor of continued reductions to the business franchise tax.

"If you have the same type of taxes that the states around you have, you don't have to do special things to bring them in," Miller said. "You're economic policy is as such that it attracts the business."

But with those tax cuts come a certain amount of budget tightening. Miller and Morgan each voiced concern as to the impact federal health care reform will have on the state budget. The reform could potentially mean a large increase in Medicaid payments for the state.

EDUCATION: Hornbuckle listed education as his top priority. It also was an issue for Craig and Miller.

Hornbuckle, a financial representative with Mass Mutual Financial Group, cited a recent audit of the state's education system in mentioning the need for more efficient transportation routing. He believes better routing would save gasoline and reduce costs incurred by the local school systems. He also expressed concern with a finding that indicates bus drivers were getting paid for making extra runs during the school day.

Together, Hornbuckle said reducing those costs would allow the school systems to reallocate that savings to ensure teachers are paid adequate salaries.

Miller mentioned a similar issue. She latched onto a recommendation that reduces bureaucracy in the upper levels of the state's education system. She believes that money should instead be spent in schools on ways to directly impact students.

Craig's education initiative is focused a reduction in class size. He previously introduced legislation to cap core curriculum classes at 17 students, down from the current limit of 27, for kindergarten through third grade. He intends to extend that proposal to 12th grade if elected, saying today's consolidated high schools make the issue all the more important.

"That one-on-one interaction between the teacher and the student, along with technological advances, it really has shown to be the most effective for the student to learn," he said. Craig also indicated he would support an increase in the dropout age to 18. Beyond that, he supports increased funding to reinforce efforts being made by the judiciary and other agencies to reduce truancy and dropouts.

Hornbuckle views meaningful internships as a way to reduce the dropout rate.

"I do feel that once you get a student involved in more work, they're more apt to stay in school," he said. "Also, it better prepares you for what you want to do."

PRISONS/DRUG TREATMENT: Miller's top priority is an initiative called justice reinvestment. Its basic premise involves reallocating money set aside for corrections for use in providing longer-term drug treatment to offenders.

Miller has been studying the issue for three years. The treatment provided would amount to a different type of incarceration, one focused on rehabilitating the offender with strict, monitored treatment. She believes the result would be a society with fewer repeat offenders, which could eventually save tax dollars otherwise used to lock up a growing population.

Changes to state law would be necessary. She voiced support for shorter prison sentences and quicker parole eligibility, as long as those benefiting are non-violent and non-dealing offenders who seek treatment for their drug problem in a manner consistent with the program's strict monitoring.

"The bad guys belong in jail," she said. "They belong in prison. The people doing terrible deeds in society belong there, but there are a lot of people that are caught up in the system that it might be better served with our tax dollars to learn how to treat this better."

Morgan also supports increased drug treatment for prisoners. He also mentioned a need to create a multi-state, online drug registry, an issue he said the Legislature previously has voted down.

HOME RULE: Morgan's sights are set upon an extension of Home Rule, a pilot program adopted by the state aimed at allowing selected cities to develop new strategies for various issues.

Morgan believes many ideas developed in the pilot project, which includes Huntington, have been helpful to the participating cities. He now hopes the program will be extended to four more cities, although he would reject any plan to open it to every municipality in the state, calling that unmanageable.

Home Rule is scheduled to sunset in 2013 without an extension.

"As we find out that we all have the same problems, then we can solve them," he said. "The West Virginia Constitution is a little skimpy on what it allows cities to do, and this is a way I think to help the cities and the state."

Huntington used Home Rule to pass an occupation tax aimed at helping manage its debt, but implementation of the tax has been stalled by a lawsuit.

Morgan, leery of Huntington's plan for the tax, had hoped the city would refrain from pursuing tax changes. For that reason, Morgan said he believes any extension of Home Rule must restrict participants from changing taxation.

FAMILY COURT: Davis, director of Cabell County 911, listed job creation as his top priority, but explained issues with the state's family court system drove him to seek elected office.

The candidate, never divorced and married for 37 years, said it was his daughter's divorce that revealed to him problems in family court. He called the system a "disassembly line for dissolving marriages."

If elected, Davis wants to propose a requirement for mandated separation to limit the number of divorces. That would involve state-provided counseling to help the couple try to resolve their differences without divorce.

Davis also supports the idea of mandated, premarital counseling; however he was unsure as to how either counseling program would be funded.

Another change would involve visitation. He wants passage of a bill designed to force judges to consider issues of abuse, infidelity and the reason for a couple's divorce in determining custody and visitation rights.

FAMILY VALUES: Davis additionally casts himself as the district's family values candidate. He criticized the voting record of the race's Democratic incumbents.

Davis did not indicate he would take a proactive role in proposing specific family values legislation, however he vowed to be a vote of opposition on issues involving gay marriage and gambling. He also defined himself as a pro-life candidate who approves of abortion only in times of rape, incest and for the life of the mother.

Craig also mentioned family issues as a priority, but defined his vision as one of a more holistic approach meaning that education and economic development will build strong families.

TUITION CAPS: Hornbuckle supports legislation that would cap any annual increase in tuition at 2.5 to 3.5 percent. He actually favors a cap of 1.1 percent, although he believes that may not be feasible.

Hornbuckle, a former student body president at Marshall University, said significant increases in tuition could soon exclude the demographics area universities were designed to serve.

"Marshall was known for offering a great education at a great price," he said. "If we keep on increasing tuition, then we will just be a good education at a hefty price."

The candidate said he would be open to a soft tuition cap that would slide with inflation.