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Senate candidates concerned over state roads, Medicaid

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Candidates for 4th and 8th District state Senate seats want to see more funds diverted to highway infrastructure.

Republicans Mitch Carmichael and Chris Walters, and Democrats Michael Bright and Joshua Martin met with the Daily Mail editorial board on Tuesday.

Candidates agreed the state needs to spend more money on roads, and they also have concerns about the cost of a potential expansion of the state's Medicaid program as part of the federal Affordable Care Act.

Carmichael and Bright, both of Ripley, are facing off for one of two seats in the 4th District, which includes parts of Putnam, Mason, Jackson and Roane counties. Sen. Karen Facemyer, R-Jackson, currently holds that seat but has decided not to seek re-election.

Carmichael, 52, is an executive with Frontier Communications and currently serves as minority whip in the House of Delegates. Bright, a former Marine and State Police officer, is finishing his second term as Jackson County sheriff.

Walters and Martin are seeking an open 8th District seat held by Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha, who is not seeking re-election. That district used to be wholly in Kanawha County but was expanded to include a section of Putnam County this year.

Both Walters and Martin are the sons of current lawmakers. Martin, a 35-year-old Poca resident, is the son of Delegate Helen Martin, D-Putnam, and the late Delegate Dale Martin. Walters, 26, of Nitro is the son of Delegate Ron Walters, R-Kanawha.  

All four candidates said they would work to improve the state's economic climate, education system and infrastructure.

Candidates acknowledged the state's highway system lacks adequate funding, and they favored diverting money from other areas of the budget to shore up the road fund.

Carmichael said he was absolutely opposed to raising the gas tax to solve the problem.

 "This government is already too big, it spends too much money and we're overtaxed as businesses and people in this state," he said. "The extent to which we enable people to keep more of their hard-earned money will foster capitalism here and revenue and we will see growth."

Bright said he also opposed increasing taxes or fees to shore up the fund. He said the state should consider tapping its Rainy Day Fund to help fund road construction and maintenance.

"I think we need to prioritize what we're going to do with the money we have available," Bright said. "I'm not sure we need to have an $850 million Rainy Day Fund. I don't think it needs to be close to a billion dollars; I don't think it should be that much."

Walters said West Virginia needs to consider more non-traditional ways to fund highway spending. He cited an example in Kentucky where corporations like Kentucky Fried Chicken were allowed to sponsor highway maintenance projects.

"Thinking outside the box like that — that's the kind of things we should be doing for our roads," Walters said.

While he said the state should prioritize spending better, Martin also said the state can't avoid the fact that it needs to find new sources of revenue.

"We have to look at the stark economic reality that unless you find a way to bring more money in, we have no way to fund new roads in this state," he said.

Martin said Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's Blue Ribbon Commission on highway funding will consider new revenue options, including increasing the gas tax. Martin said he would support whatever recommendations the panel suggested, even if it meant increasing taxes or fees.

"I'm a paycheck-to-paycheck guy; I understand what it's like to struggle," Martin said. "I don't want to pay more taxes, but I do understand if we want good schools, good roads and a better future, we have to find a good way to pay for it."

With the need for more highway funding, candidates had serious concerns about the potential expansion of the state's Medicaid program under the federal Affordable Care Act.

The federal government cannot require states to expand their Medicaid programs, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled earlier this year. While the federal government would cover new recipient costs for the first few years, leaders in many states are worried about how already-tight budgets will be strained when the federal government reduces its share of funding.  

In this state, officials have had to use budget surpluses to meet rising costs in the current Medicaid program.  

The Senate candidates said the state should not move forward with expanding the program until it knows the long-term costs.

"There's hundreds of questions that have not been asked yet," Walters said. "Until those questions get answered, I can't be for something where there's not much light shed on it."

"There needs to be a definitive determination of the cost of the expansion," Bright said. "If we can't afford it, we shouldn't do it — it's that simple."

"If you're going to do something, you've got to find a way to pay for it," Martin said. "If we can't, we shouldn't do it."

Carmichael doesn't think President Barack Obama's health reforms will reduce health care costs as predicted, and that could hinder the quality of care for Medicaid recipients.

"The Obama health care program is a disaster," Carmichael said. "The only thing this is going to do at all is reduce the reimbursement doctors receive from Medicaid, which could end up causing them to offer fewer services."

Contact writer Jared Hunt at jared.hunt@dailymail.com or  304-348-5148.


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