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Lawmakers return from future fund study trip

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Sometimes it takes seeing to believe.

For 19 West Virginia lawmakers, a trip to North Dakota to study that state's legacy fund was necessary to get a full grasp of what it would take to create a future fund in the Mountain State.

"I've been on numerous conferences over my political career, and this is the most informative, productive trip of any I've ever been on," Senate President Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, said this week. "We weren't just sitting there being lectured to or watching a PowerPoint, but  actually having an interaction with other folks who had already been down the path we're examining.

"There was a lot of explanation going on, a lot of give-and-take, so you could interrupt and ask a question or a follow up."

Kessler has been an outspoken proponent of setting up a fund created by oil and gas tax revenue for the past three years. He has said the fund could create wealth that lasts even after the natural gas opportunities are gone. North Dakota's fund was created in 2011 and reached $1 billion in only 20 months.

Kessler led the trip, which cost the state an estimated $24,500. He said as soon as his office announced the trip would take place, it received many requests from lawmakers to take part in the visit. Kessler said with all the requests, he didn't have to do much picking and choosing, but he worked with Senate Minority Leader Mike Hall, R-Putnam, and tried to balance the members between both the House and the Senate and along party lines. Several representatives from the business and labor community attended the trip as well, including the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, the West Virginia Oil & Natural Gas Association, the West Virginia AFL-CIO and EQT Production.

North Dakota Sen. Dwight Cook, R-Mandan, said 14 lawmakers would host the West Virginia delegation. He said a delegation of California lawmakers recently visited North Dakota to learn about the state's oil and gas savings account.

"I do know West Virginia has a lot of energy development going on, and I think they want to see what we did right and what we did wrong, and how we got the Legacy Fund set up," Cook told the Associated Press before the trip.

West Virginia Delegate Mike Manypenny, D-Taylor, made the trip to North Dakota but said this week he questioned the long journey.

"I was wondering what the importance of taking a trip all the way to North Dakota could bring, knowing we could do something by phone, but after sitting down with all the legislators that agreed to meet with us, and having the one-on-one interaction, there were a lot of questions and answers I don't think would have happened had we done this via phone or Skype," Manypenny said. "I think this was really a very positive step, and I'm very honored to have been a part of the process; I believe a lot of good came from it."

Manypenny said he learned North Dakota set up its fund through a revision of its constitution rather than writing a new section of law, which prevents lawmakers from touching the fund until a set time.

"I brought a lot of information back about how they regulate their industry a little bit differently than we do in regards to surface owners' rights and how they have expanded public water through a private collaboration by putting several million dollars into a water extension project," Manypenny said. "There were so many little sidebars that occurred that I don't think would have had we done this over the phone."

He said he thinks a portion of the funds should be set aside for developing or repairing infrastructure to help spur economic development into the future, but he's optimistic the fund will be established soon.

"I hope that we are as successful with ours as they have been with theirs. With Sen. Kessler's leadership and the brains that we have in counsel at the state Capitol, I'm sure we will be able to do as good or better than North Dakota," Manypenny said.

Kessler said everyone who attended the trip seemed universally in favor of the Future Fund, and the only objection he's heard is from people who say the state needs to spend the money now.

But as for the repeat tries to get the fund created, he said he's used to major legislation taking a few years to clear all the legislative hurdles.

At least one lawmaker who didn't go on the trip to North Dakota said she's not opposed to a future fund, but opposes House Bill 3013, which was passed this year and authorizes the Senate president and House of Delegates speaker to appoint job creation workgroups.

"My concern was it set a precedent," said Delegate Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell. "Are we going to go out and send people at taxpayer expense to study issues when we know what's wrong with West Virginia?"

Sobonya said a future fund isn't a tangible thing that can be toured such as a factory, so she and Delegate Jim Butler, R-Mason, decided to do some independent research on it.

"There was not a dime of taxpayer money for our research," she said. "We used our personal cell phones, personal laptops and talked to a North Dakota legislator, a North Dakota reporter and we talked to North Dakota citizens, as well as doing extensive Internet research all about the pros and cons of it."

She said when state agencies are being asked to trim their budgets the second year in a row, she's not comfortable trying to set up a separate savings fund.

"I just don't know how we can expect the people to pay higher taxes or fees or do another bond if we can't do the obligations that we have," she said. "I do applaud Sen. Kessler for wanting to create a legacy for our future generations."

Sobonya said she learned that North Dakota citizens are not 100 percent happy with their legacy fund because there are schools that were wiped out by flooding and roads are dilapidated. She wants to be sure West Virginia understands all the implications before taking action.

"There are lessons that can be learned from the coal industry, and the drilling is not always going to be here, so we've got to look at the future," she said. "I'm looking forward to the discussion and debate and sharing the research that I've done with what they've done and working together for the benefit of West Virginia, because we have got to come up with answers to those questions."

Kessler said lawmakers from North Dakota have offered to come to West Virginia if any additional forums are necessary, and he's also looking at some economic projections to show where the state would be if a similar fund for coal severance taxes had been established many years ago. 

"I think seeing is believing, and when you go out to another area and hear point blank and see for yourself what they've been able to accomplish, I think it really drives home the point of the success we can achieve if we're willing to have the courage to try it," Kessler said. "What do we have to lose?"