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Statehouse Beat: Advice for getting the road bond passed

Nobody asked for my advice, but since the general consensus is that the Oct. 7 road bond referendum is in trouble, I thought I’d offer some suggestions for how to have a chance of getting it passed:

n Stay low-key. There’s two schools of thought on referendum elections: Go big with media buys to bolster turnout, or go low-key, with the intent of motivating supporters to turn out to vote, without drawing the sort of widespread publicity that could bring the negative nellies out in droves.

I’m advised that proponents of the road bond did some polling on the matter, and with barely five weeks to the election, apparently have opted for the low-key approach.

Focusing on presentations before chambers of commerce and other community organizations, generating news coverage, and building word-of-mouth support would seem to be the better option at this point.

n Keep Jim Justice on the sidelines. At the moment, given his party affiliation flop, Justice is political poison, despised by many Democrats and regarded warily by many Republicans.

If the bond election turns into a referendum on Justice, to paraphrase the governor, it’s history, it’s gone.

Justice has able proxies in Transportation Secretary Tom Smith and chief of staff Mike Hall, among others, to spread the gospel of the virtues of the road bond amendment.

To again paraphrase the governor, road bond proponents would have to be buffooned to let Justice actively campaign for the amendment. If need be, keep him locked up in the Governor’s Mansion, The Greenbrier, or Lewisburg, wherever it is he happens to reside.

n Keep it simple. Last week, the Division of Highways put out a 16-page spreadsheet outlining not only the 39 major road projects to be funded by the $1.6 billion bond issue, but projects to be funded by GARVEE bonds, by a new round of Parkways Authority bonds, as well as some good old pay-go projects.

For Highways engineers, the spreadsheet probably seems perfectly sensible, with line after line of construction projects designated by mile markers or intersections with other highways. For us laypeople, however, we need better and simpler explanations to understand the various projects, including visual aids.

Maps outlining each project would be helpful, as would explanations on the practical benefits of each; i.e., adding a lane in each direction on a particular piece of interstate will reduce rush-hour traffic congestion by XX percent, or will save XX number of minutes on the commute home.

(Road bond proponents also might want to clarify how the “Road to Prosperity” bonds are to work in conjunction with GARVEE bonds and with the roughly $600 million of Parkways bonds – which, by law, can only be used to fund road projects in 10 Southern West Virginia counties either linked by or near to the West Virginia Turnpike.

After the list of highways projects to be funded through the $1.6 billion bond issue was published, I received calls from irate readers in southern West Virginia, who said they were going to vote against the referendum because there are no projects listed for their part of the state.

In reality, however, the spreadsheet lists multiple projects in Fayette, Greenbrier, McDowell, Mercer, Monroe, Nicholas, Raleigh, Summers and Wyoming counties to be funded with Parkways bonds, including work on the King Coal Highway and Coalfields Expressway.)

n Fight misinformation. The biggest misconception being spread is that the new package of increases in the state gas tax, DMV fees, and the motor vehicle privilege tax enacted in June somehow either won’t be sufficient or won’t be used to finance the $1.6 billion bond issue.

While the administration has conservatively estimated the new taxes and fees will bring in $130 million a year, or $3.25 billion over the 25-year life of the bonds, fiscal notes for the legislation (SB1006) put that number at over $140 million currently, with gas tax collections from the legislation projected to increase by $22 million a year by the out years.

Likewise, the fiscal note for DMV fee increases projects $81 million a year in additional revenue currently, but the law allows the DMV to increase fees every five years to account for consumer price inflation. (A wise move, considering that many of those DMV fees had been unchanged since the 1960s and ‘70s.)

Assuming the fees are increased by the maximum 10 percent allowed in the law every five years, in the 25th year of the bond issue, the fees would be bringing in not an additional $81 million a year, but approximately $130.5 million.

Clearly, the current revenue stream is more than sufficient to pay off $1.6 billion in bonds, and anyone who says otherwise is either buffooned or is purposely making false claims.

n Build trust. Between longstanding stereotypes and very real news accounts, many see a Division of Highways plagued with waste, fraud and abuse.

Voters need confidence that a massive $2.5 billion wave of highways construction will be conducted in an open, honest and transparent manner, and will be as cost-efficient as possible.

▪ ▪ ▪

As agencies continue to move into newly renovated Capitol Complex Building 3, the bills for furnishing the new office space continue to roll in.

Marshall Reynolds’ Capitol Business Interiors continues to be the major benefactor, with August billings totaling $934,005 to WorkForce West Virginia, and $270,421 to the state Division of Tourism.

That brings total payments to date to Capitol Business Interiors for Building 3 furnishings to $4.345 million.

▪ ▪ ▪

Finally, speaking of tourism, Oshel Craigo has resigned from the state Tourism Commission, where he had served as chairman in recent years. That probably marks the end of a long and storied career in public service, highlighted by his eight-year tenure as Senate Finance Committee chairman.

Craigo was part of a trio of Senate Finance chairmen, beginning with Earl Ray Tomblin in 1987 and running through to Walt Helmick in 2012, who brought new levels of fiscal responsibility to the Legislature. During their tenures, the state established Rainy Day emergency reserve funds, came up with funding to stabilize critically underfunded state pension funds, and paid down massive Workers’ Compensation unfunded liabilities.

(Worth noting that under their leadership, it took days, not months, to enact state budgets.)

When discussing policy matters, Craigo frequently and famously reminded colleagues to consider the impact on the folks living in little white houses, a focus that has faded since his departure.

Craigo, meanwhile, has lived a true Horatio Alger story. Starting out as a barber, he would overhear businessmen talking about real estate transactions and business deals, absorbed the information like a sponge, and began dabbling in real estate and business ventures himself.

The rest, as they say, is history. There’s a reason why few regional fast food chains survive, let alone thrive, against big national competitors like McDonald’s, as Craigo’s Tudor’s Biscuit World chain has done.

(By the way, Jeffery Lusk, executive director of the Hatfield McCoy Regional Recreation Authority, succeeds Craigo as commission chairman.)

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazettemail, 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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