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Rick Wilson: House can make difference with W.Va. future fund

I imagine that most of us at some point have wished we could go back in time and do something differently. Maybe it would be to avoid a disastrous decision or to take advantage of an opportunity that only knocked once.

Time travel, alas, doesn't seem to be an option now outside of science fiction. But we do have the chance to learn from the past and do things differently.

The West Virginia Legislature and specifically the House of Delegates has the chance to do just that as the clock runs down on the session.

Most thoughtful West Virginians know that the big story of the last 100 years or so has been that of great natural wealth that has been extracted from our soil by the hard and dangerous work of several generations of our people. And they know that most of that wealth left the state, often leaving families and communities high and dry. The poorest parts of our state are those from which the greatest wealth has been removed.

We have the chance right now to change the script and break the pattern of the last century by ensuring that our children and grandchildren benefit from our nonrenewable resources. All that needs to happen is for the House to pass Senate Bill 461, which would create the West Virginia Future Fund.

The Future Fund would be a permanent mineral trust fund created from a portion of severance taxes on natural gas. The principal would build over time as gas production increases and would be prudently invested, while the interest generated could provide a steady and growing stream of funding for economic development, infrastructure, and education as soon as 2020.

Specifically, the bill would set aside 25 percent of oil and gas severance taxes once these reach the level of $175 million per year. Current revenue needs would be protected and the fund would be built from a fraction of money we haven't seen yet. Several other mineral rich states have taken similar steps, including Alaska, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming and New Mexico.

The advantages of such a trust fund are many. It provides funding for the needs of the future without new taxes and without raising the rate of severance taxes. Most importantly, it creates a source of sustainable wealth for a state in sore need of it.

It's an idea that has been embraced by leaders and citizens across the political spectrum. Earlier this year, House Speaker Tim Miley and other leaders from both parties expressed support for the idea.

If we had done something like this 100, 50 or even 20 years ago, West Virginia's situation would be vastly different. And better. We can't go back, but we can do the right thing now.

The bill passed the sometimes fractious West Virginia Senate unanimously. It deserves the same fate in the House.

Wilson, director of the American Friends Service Committee WV Economic Justice Project, is a Gazette contributing columnist.


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