The November 2012 race for governor of West Virginia may well be settled in January and February. I suspect Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is well aware of that.
State legislators meet for their annual regular session during those months. I wouldn't be surprised if Tomblin ensures they have a lot on their plates. And he may push hard for them to deal with all of it.
It will be critically important for Tomblin to get lawmakers to do something constructive about the OPEB problem. The acronym stands for other post-employment benefits, and it involves retired government employees. The unfunded liability to ensure they receive health care and other benefits has been estimated at as large as $8 billion - though state Sen. Jeff Kessler thinks it could be much less, perhaps in the range of $4 billion.
Either way, it's a big number - and a big talking point for whomever the Republicans run against Tomblin next fall. Bill Maloney, the GOP nominee narrowly defeated by Tomblin in October, has indicated he'll probably run again next year. Look for him to be better prepared, having had several months' break from campaigning to think about what he did wrong - and right - this year.
Make no mistake about it: Maloney did a lot right. He came within two and one-half percentage points of unseating Tomblin. Maloney garnered nearly 47 percent of the vote in a state where Democrats still outnumber Republicans decisively. He lost by fewer than 8,000 votes.
And unless the Legislature comes through for Tomblin, Maloney's major campaign position will be even stronger this time around.
Tomblin won by convincing many voters the state is in good shape, in large measure because of his efforts. It's true; in comparison to most other states, West Virginia's government finances are a shining star upon a hill.
But Maloney viewed the numbers as an illusion - and he's right.
For starters, there's that OPEB problem. Even $4 billion is a lot of money. Paying the liability down will cost hundreds of millions of dollars a year for many years. And to date, no one has come up with a plan for OPEB. Look for Maloney to pound on that over and over again, unless lawmakers enact a program to handle the issue.
New rules for gas and oil drillers remain a concern, too. If lawmakers don't approve a package of new regulations by the end of the regular session, Maloney will have another weapon in his arsenal.
Finally, as Maloney, Tomblin and legislators are well aware, the current period is the calm before a nasty fiscal storm in West Virginia government. For various reasons, projections are the state will be hundreds of millions of dollars short of balancing its budget sometime during the next five to seven years. Has anyone come up with a plan to deal with that? No, as Maloney will point out.
Finally, don't look for the dog (and horse) racing issue to go away. This time, Maloney may well focus less on the Tomblin family's involvement in greyhound racing and more on financial matters. There's plenty of that to criticize, starting with the $100 million giveaway to the state's four gambling casinos and racetracks.
That program helps the casinos "modernize" by giving them $1 from the state for every $2 they spend on new gambling equipment. The 10-year program may hand out as much as $100 million. Look for Maloney to point out that no other business receives that kind of help from West Virginia taxpayers.
Only about one-fourth of the state's registered voters cast ballots in the October special election for governor. Higher turnout can be expected in November 2012 because it is a presidential election.
That's a problem for Tomblin, because his fellow Democrat, President Barack Obama, will be on the ticket. There will be fewer straight-ticket Democrat ballots for that reason.
That makes it all the more important for Tomblin to solidify his position early in the year.
Myer can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.