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Senate president: Future fund to be reintroduced this year

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State lawmakers will get another go at a bill designed to cushion the blow of up and downs in the state's energy economy.

The Future Fund is a concept that has been promoted in the Legislature for the past several years. The idea is to take funds from increased activity in the Marcellus Shale gas field and save it for future economic development.

A similar fund, had it been created for the coal industry, supporters say, would have left West Virginia with a large sum of money for diversifying its economy. Sen. Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, touted the future fund when he ran for governor in the 2010 special election primary.

"My original concept was that the pie was going to grow exponentially bigger just because of the increased level of activity," Kessler said. "I think that's borne out in terms of raw investment and economic activity."

The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy has also been a vocal supporter of a future fund. Similar legislation has been active in other energy-rich states such as Alaska and Wyoming.

The bill was introduced to the Legislature in last year's session but failed to pass. Kessler said he thinks this year the bill might have a chance.

"One of the difficulties could well be we're having a difficult budget year," Kessler said. "It may be tough to try to allocate monies into a savings account while we're trying to make the budget balanced."

Kessler said legislators they could work this year on getting the framework for the fund in place. Then, once budget constraints are not as troublesome or if other sorts of benchmarks are reached, collections for the fund could begin.

"At this point, raising taxes, particularly when I know our governor has come out and said no new taxes this year, it's probably not a good year," the said. "I don't think the time is right for discussion of tax increase."

Kessler said in addition to creating a fund with severance tax increases, the Legislature might also opt to set aside increases in property taxes. He said property valuations have been on the rise in areas with high natural gas activity.

Kessler was optimistic about the fund, blaming its failure to pass last year on lawmakers' unfamiliarity with the bill.

"Any time there is a new and novel concept, it takes several years, quite frankly, for folks to warm up to it. The first year was just getting the concept out there, last year they started talking about it," Kessler said.