Local Legislators Hold Town Hall Meeting

WHEELING – When three Northern Panhandle legislators take their seats for the start of West Virginia’s 2014 legislative session on Jan. 8 in Charleston, they will be ready to tackle hot button issues brought to their attention on Saturday.

Delegates Ryan Ferns and Erikka Storch, both R-Ohio, and David Evans, R-Marshall, held a town hall meeting Saturday morning at Wheeling Jesuit University to gather input from the public. All three legislators said they were not surprised when the natural gas drilling industry, the condition of roads and medical marijuana topped the lists of several of the 15 people who attended.

However, the lawmakers first addressed what they see as a bigger looming issue with the next state budget – Medicaid funding cuts. Ferns said while the state has made budget cuts in departments across the board, the reduction of Medicaid funding scheduled for 2015 could result in a $60 million-$100 million budget deficit.

Storch said the budget cuts have already affected higher education in the state because colleges and universities are limited on what they can cut, which could result in higher tuition rates. She said lottery revenues also are decreasing which results in a “general conundrum.”

Evans said raising taxes on gasoline and the sale of drivers’ licenses and tags is being looked at as a way to increase revenue for highways infrastructure. As for the other budget concerns, Ferns believes the budget will be balanced by the end of the fiscal year.

Meanwhile, Wheeling resident John Toth raised concerns over “forced pooling” of owners of mineral rights in the Marcellus Shale-rich land, especially in Ohio and Marshall counties. A bill being proposed – which none of the three local lawmakers has seen – could force property owners to enter into a drilling lease and be paid a set amount of money for their mineral rights. Toth likened the situation to eminent domain.

“The gas industry wants forced pooling. They want to average leases – some 100 years old at $1 an acre to today’s going price. There needs to be a standard amount of money especially if you are taking the gas by eminent domain.”

Storch said that would not be feasible as gas companies may pay higher prices to property owners in Ohio and other variables would make it impossible to put a set price on leases.

“There is a draft bill for this but I’m not sure how far it will go. We want to have hearings in Charleston to voice concerns,” Storch said.

She also pointed out that just about every bill proposed last year sought Marcellus Shale money. All three legislators said they need more information to be able to decide on such a law.

In a related matter, a state highways worker who did not want to be identified, said lawmakers need to address the permitting process regarding the movement of the gas drilling industry’s vehicles and heavy, oversized loads on Mountain State roads. He said many permits are issued in Charleston, while others are issued locally by the state Division of Highways. He said his job is to ensure the safety of the area’s bridges and the public.

He said sometimes the DOH is asked to approve 30 permits a day and the companies are not always patient about the process. “They need to work with us,” he said.

Another person questioned if there are any restrictions put on the equipment haulers as their loads appear to be exceeding the bridge and road weight limits. The state highway worker said weight limits have been increased on certain state roads. He said some companies simply pay the fines, which he noted are much lower than those of surrounding states.

Evans also pointed out the loss of highway workers to the natural gas industry because of the lure of higher wages.

Meanwhile, Aaron Moses, founder of Mountaineers for Medical Marijuana, offered his argument for the need to legalize medical marijuana in the Mountain State. He said it would cut down on the number of drug dealers on the street and begin to address the growing prescription drug abuse problem by young people in the state.

“It would take away from prescription drugs to something organic.”

All three legislators said they would be in favor of the issue, however, Evans suggested it should be placed on the ballot to allow voters to decide.

Another topic local legislators said could be up for discussion included increasing the minimum amount of required car insurance. Ferns said several insurance agents are against the idea, claiming more drivers will simply not purchase any insurance.

Also up for discussion will be requiring all contractors to be bonded. Storch said several people who built homes in the Northern Panhandle and who paid cash were then stuck paying suppliers who were not paid by the contractor.

“It should be your personal responsibility but sadly government may be getting involved and construction costs will increase,” Storch said.