Billion-dollar dilemma for Gov. Tomblin
ONE year ago, Governor Tomblin created the West Virginia Blue Ribbon Commission on Highways to try to come up with ways to raise the money needed for road construction and repairs.
Tomblin sounded optimistic as he charged the 31-member commission to spend the next year holding public hearings and researching funding possibilities for highways.
"I've called together some of the brightest minds in transportation, construction, labor and business to address our aging highway system," Tomblin said.
"I look forward to working with the Blue Ribbon Commission, discussing their findings and reviewing their proposed legislation, so that we can together address the future of our transportation system."
Now the commission has come out with its report, pending final approval, and the Governor sounds more circumspect. That's because the proposal includes borrowing $1 billion and increasing several highway-related fees.
"I'm not sure a bond issue of that magnitude at this time is something we want to get into," Tomblin told the Charleston Gazette.
The Governor added that he wants to reserve judgment until he sees the final report, but it's fair to say his initial reaction is rather tepid.
The Blue Ribbon Commission would finance the $1 billion road bond by keeping the tolls on the turnpike, rather than removing them in 2019 as currently planned, and gradually raising the tolls to pay off the debt.
The Commission also recommends increasing DMV registration and licensing fees to raise another $75 million and adding an annual registration fee of $200 for alternative fuel vehicles.
The Commission report says the $1.1 billion can be raised without any tax increases, but that's a semantic stretch. Tolls and fees are just other names for taxes.
Tomblin ran for election, and re-election, on the theme of more jobs and lower taxes, so the commission plan puts him in an awkward place.
The only way for a major road-building project to make it through the Legislature is for the governor to get behind it.
Democratic lawmakers are unlikely to take the risk without the governor's imprimatur.
But in a legislative Catch-22, the governor will likely take the temperature of legislators before deciding whether to get behind an expensive road-building plan.
Additionally, Tomblin will be reluctant to put his fellow Democrats in a tough position for the 2014 election.
Republicans are salivating over the prospect of running against "tax and spend" Democrats.
Building roads in West Virginia is a tough and costly job because of the terrain.
You're always going around the mountain or over the creek.
But the first expense in road construction is spending the political capital necessary to win legislative approval and public support.
We need to give the commission time to finalize its recommendations and the Governor an opportunity to digest the report, but the early signs, and Tomblin's history, suggest he'll be reluctant to make that investment.
Kercheval is host of TalkLine, broadcast by the MetroNews Statewide Radio Network from 10 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday. The show can be heard locally on WCHS 580 AM.