The legislative contingency for Jefferson County gathered last week at a Chamber of Commerce sponsored event to discuss the top issues on the minds of county business leaders. The event, held at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center, was sponsored by Willow Tree Manor and First Energy.
The format of the luncheon had each legislator give a brief overview of what their focus will be in the upcoming session. Following those remarks, moderator Hans Fogle took questions from the audience for individual representatives.
The state budget shortfalls were on the minds of all five participants in the forum. Delegate Paul Espinosa started off the discussion by saying what most in the room already knew, that revenue from gaming is down significantly. He indicated that entitlement costs are high and that he feels the state needs to enhance business opportunities to draw more business into the state.
Tiffany Lawrence agreed that the budget is a very tough issue and that difficult choices will have to be made. Stephen Skinner agreed, although he called for a look at the positive in the state.
"Our unemployment is below four percent," he said. He also shared that the new Speaker of the House has formed a Small Business/Entrepreneur/Economic Development committee that he hopes will continue to work to bring more business into the state.
Senators John Unger and Herb Snyder focused their remarks on the budget indicating there is no talk of raised taxes.
Snyder went so far to say, however, that this is the worst budget year he has seen in about 17 years. He attributed the shortfalls not only to the decrease in gaming revenue but to a high cost of a flex fuel tax credit that was given out. The number of dollars the state paid out in that credit, he said, have reached $40 million and could climb higher.
Another major focus of the day's discussion settled on broadband service within the county and the often inefficiency of the service. Skinner stated that one of the top five complaints he receives from constituents revolves around the poor service or complete lack of service.
Espinosa, who works for Frontier Communications who provides much of the service around the state, was on the defense saying that to provide service is not always cost effective or feasible.
"You have to look at the feasibility of providing service and whether it just becomes another subsidy for the taxpayer," he said. Espinosa also attributed some of the high costs paid out of federal stimulus funds to high rates of paying prevailing wages.
Education was a main topic, as it is each year. This year the talk came back around to the budget woes and the possibility of higher education cuts. All five legislators felt it imperative that Shepherd University, specifically, not be cut any further. They also stressed they would fight for no more cuts to Blue Ridge Community and Technical College.
Lawrence indicated she will work to push through performance based budgeting and will work against across the board cuts.
To assist with funding rather than cutting funds, Skinner said it was time to tap into the state's "rainy day fund."
"At the higher education level, it's raining," he said. "We can't afford more cuts."
There were several topics on a list prepared by the Chamber as a result of a survey sent to Chamber members. Minimum wage issues, substance abuse in the workplace and homeless and mental health issues were concerns named by constituents that did not fall into the allotted time frame of the luncheon.