Fiscal woes dominate District 1 race

In the two years since they took control of the West Virginia House of Delegates, the Republicans have passed right-to-work legislation, a prevailing wage repeal and two budgets that have been heavy on compromise with outgoing Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

Hancock County Delegates Pat McGeehan and Mark Zatezalo, although both Republicans, have not always agreed on the issues, especially when it comes to the state budget, taxes and oil-and-gas extraction.

Now both men are running for re-election, and are facing a challenge from one of the Democrats they ousted in 2014–Ronnie Jones, 62, of Weirton.

Retired after 40 years with the Weirton Area Water Board, Jones previously served two terms in the House and has raised the most money among the three candidates so far.

Jones faults McGeehan and Zatezalo for not working together enough since 2014–suggesting that their lack of agreement has hurt Hancock County.

“My four years, I think I accomplished a lot, and I didn’t see too much accomplished the last two years,” he said. “I’m willing to work across the aisle with either one of them on the issues.”

Jones describes himself as an old-school West Virginia Democrat whose chief concerns are “working families,” organized labor and small businesses. If elected, he said he also will focus on the rising cost of healthcare, including at the state Public Employees Insurance Agency.

“We can’t create jobs, naturally, but we can do what we can to keep jobs here. … Our kids are leaving here because there’s nothing here for them.”

Jones criticized McGeehan for being the sole “no” vote on the flood relief bill passed by the House in September. House Bill 201 will dispense about $85 million, not including federal matching funds, to areas in southern West Virginia that were damaged by flooding in June.

The funding includes $55 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund, $21 million in unappropriated balances from two state lottery accounts, and $9 million that had not yet been spent from the 2015-2016 state budget.

McGeehan, 36, of Chester, called the flood relief bill “highly flawed,” premature and tainted by politics.

“The damage estimates were not complete. If we would have waited a few more weeks, we would have met the threshold for a 90 percent match from the federal government. As it stands now, only 75 percent was matched by the feds,” McGeehan said. “Because of this rush, it cost the taxpayers $55 million that we could have saved.”

McGeehan said he couldn’t in good conscience vote for the flood relief bill in light of the state’s perpetual budget crisis.

“It was a hastily-thrown-together big spending package. Much of this money is going to be squandered by government bureaucrats,” he said.

McGeehan’s positions on taxes and spending have occasionally put him at odds with his fellow Republicans, including House Speaker Tim Armstead, who excluded him from Republican Caucus meetings on the state budget in May.

McGeehan convinced 21 House members to take a no-new-taxes pledge during special budget hearings in May and voted against the final $4.19 billion budget deal in June. His opposition to a cigarette tax increase was one of several disagreements with Zatezalo.

“The state budget must be prioritized. Our state government faces one of the worst financial conditions in recent history,” McGeehan said, noting that the state is on pace for a $100 million shortfall by late December and a $365 million deficit next year.

But Zatezalo, 64, of Weirton, said such opposition ultimately was counterproductive because it led to a 65-cent per-pack tax increase in June, when a 45-cent increase was within reach. McGeehan’s Liberty Caucus, which opposed the cigarette tax increase, and the Democrats, who thought the 45-cent increase was not high enough, jointly defeated the measure in May.

The tax increase is projected to raise $100,000 million a year–a tax increase that earned Zatezalo criticism from the Liberty Political Action Committee of West Virginia, among others.

McGeehan’s solution for the state’s budget woes includes “sweeping” the accounts of state agencies, ending “wasteful” spending and reducing the size of government–all of which he acknowledges is a tall order.

“State government has doubled in size in the last 16 years, yet we’ve lost population since that time,” he said. “In the first three months of this fiscal year, the state has been spending $25 million more a month than it’s been taking in.”

Jones said the state, and especially Hancock County, has already suffered under budget cuts. “I don’t know if there’s anywhere else you can cut,” he said.

Although he declined to take a no-new-taxes pledge, Zatezalo said he voted twice for a no-new-taxes budget that Tomblin vetoed.

“I understand that taxing our way to prosperity is not going to work,” he said. “But do you shut down the government over this, or do you try to do a modest compromise that raises taxes not even to what the drop in the coal severance tax was? … I think we did the right thing (by reaching a compromise).”

Another issue that has divided Hancock County’s delegation is “forced pooling,” or what proponents call “lease integration,” which would allow energy companies to drill for natural gas underneath private property where they lack a lease.

McGeehan opposes such measures as a violation of private property rights, while Zatezalo, a geologist by training, sees pooling as a common-sense way to access heretofore inaccessible natural gas resources.

McGeehan led a filibuster of a pooling bill earlier this year. “This bill would have allowed private companies to use government to force West Virginia landowners to sell their mineral rights against their wishes,” he said.

If re-elected, Zatezalo said he will seek to strengthen the Northern Panhandle’s economic position with respect to the oil-and-gas industry. He noted that Hancock County is equidistant from two ethane cracker plants that are under development in Belmont County, Ohio, and Beaver County, Pa.

“That puts us in the game for new business. We passed right-to-work, which puts us in a competitive position for new business,” he said. “Now’s the time to do something, to bring jobs back.”

McGeehan said he will continue to work for the repeal of Common Core as a way to “restore local control” of education. “We really have to discontinue Common Core and teaching to the test, and ensure that our children receive a solid, traditional, classical education,” he said.

McGeehan said he also wants to maintain the health of teachers’ pensions and preserve the solvency of the PROMISE Scholarship.