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Business leaders set priorities

January 10, 2009|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

EASTERN PANHANDLE, W.Va. -- Eastern Panhandle business leaders are backing a proposal to make all judicial elections nonpartisan, a reform they say would help make West Virginia's business climate more inviting to innovation-driven investment, which also needs to be nourished.

Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin last month indicated he might ask lawmakers convened for the 79th Legislature in February to leave only circuit judge candidates' political party registration off the ballot, a proposal that attracted criticism from the state's judicial association.

"That's something that Republicans have wanted for a long time," said Jerry Mays, who co-chairs the Chamber of Commerce of Martinsburg and Berkeley County's Government Affairs-Transportation Committee.

Lori Rea, executive director of the Gateway New Economy Council, points to West Virginia University economics professor Russell S. Sobel's research findings in his book "Unleashing Capitalism: Why Prosperity Stops at the West Virginia Border and How to Fix It."

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"He strongly believes that's an impediment ..." Rea said of the state's current partisan process for judicial elections.

The judicial elections process is one of several civil justice reforms Mays said would build on recent changes to workers' compensation and tort law, but is far from being the only legislative priority of the local Chamber in the coming 60-day regular session.

Though legislation with a price tag attached is expected to get a cool reception given the economic downturn, Mays said the Chamber's funding priorities include obtaining money to address transportation and utility needs, including the traffic congestion and stormwater management problems in Inwood, W.Va., the completion of W.Va. 9 and the extension of Raleigh Street in Martinsburg.

"I believe this Legislature will be very, very cautious," said Mays, who added he feels they should be.

While the Chamber feels the state needs to find a way to channel more funding toward transportation needs, including empowering local governments, Mays said the business community is concerned that the state will increase the gas tax, which isn't business-friendly, especially for trucking.

As gas tax revenue has dropped with consumption, Jeanne Mozier, a tourism leader in Berkeley Springs, W.Va., said she was "willing to bet" all of the state's gambling operations are seeing a downturn in revenue as well.

And a "huge portion" of the gambling money generated has helped tourism promotion and the arts, which Mozier said are a significant part of the Eastern Panhandle's economy.

Mozier said the state stands to benefit from a potential wave of tourists visiting the area for events marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

For the next five years, Mozier joked Berkeley Springs might want to pitch the town's relaxing amenities as a tourism promotion motto in contrast to the sesquicentennial of the Civil War events, beginning this fall with John Brown's Raid on Harpers Ferry, W.Va.

"Tired of thinking about war? Come for peace in Berkeley Springs," Mozier said.

On a serious note, Mozier said West Virginia has an opportunity to cash in on the Civil War, and often has wondered why the state -- born during the war -- hasn't done more.

As for state funding issues, Mozier hopes plans for expanding lodging at Cacapon State Park and revamping the baths at Berkeley Springs State Park are not hurt by funding concerns given the apparent popularity of the only two state parks in the Eastern Panhandle.

At the region's largest college, Rea said Shepherd University Research Corp. would like lawmakers to include the school in the state's Bucks for Brains initiative, instead of only splitting funding for the research-based economic development program between Marshall University and West Virginia University.

Rea said the council also will push to have legislation that would establish an innovation and development program to help startup companies take the next step or help existing companies expand.

The legislation, introduced last year as Senate Bill 609, died in the Senate Finance Committee.

Among the Chamber of Commerce of Martinsburg and Berkeley County's other priorities in 2009 are:

o Health care -- Ensure adequate Medicaid funding and provider payments; maintain strong Certificate of Need (CON) program; and protect and preserve medical liability reform.

o Tax reform -- Accelerate the repeal of the business franchise tax; allow a credit against business income taxes for personal property tax paid on all business inventory, machinery and equipment; and reform the property tax appeals process to improve fairness to taxpayers.

o Civil justice reform -- Establish the right to obtain review of circuit court judgments by a new intermediate court of appeals; cap punitive damage awards to $250,000 or require payment of such awards in excess of that amount into the state Treasury for support of public health and safety programs; and repeal medical monitoring cause of action.

o Education -- Support employee pay raises, including a "cost to compete" supplement for Berkeley County Schools and state employees; change the school aid formula to reflect current trends in special services and growth; permit counties true reciprocity when hiring teachers; and provide more flexibility in rehiring the county's own retired teachers, including offering those teachers a benefits package.

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