West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey wanted to know what's on the minds of Mountain State residents. Thursday evening, he got his wish.
Residents attending Morrisey's town hall meetings at Brooke Hills Park in Wellsburg and Mary H. Weir Public Library in Weirton questioned everything from liability insurance and drug abuse to how individual and corporate tax rates impact West Virginia's business climate and federal over-regulation.
He said his office is willing to call the federal government out for excessive and unfair regulations, adding the Mountain State "may have several cases before the U.S. Supreme Court" within the next year or two that could propel it "into the middle of the fight, which could be impactful."
"West Virginia should never tolerate a federal government running over it," he told his Weirton audience. "I can't (promise) we'll always win but I can tell you we'll be fighting every day for our state."
A woman at the Brooke Hills meeting told Morrisey she doesn't believe states can do much to change actions by the federal government, but the attorney general pointed out the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has already lost a number of court battles because it overextended its authority and it can happen again.
"West Virginia has the ability to stand up and challenge it," he said, adding the state will be most effective if it aligns with other states in filing legal opinions challenging EPA actions through the U.S. Supreme Court.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey spoke about what his office can do to support economic development at town hall meetings Thursday at the Mary H. Weir Public Library. -- Linda Harris
"If there are a collection of (state) attorneys general who are willing to fight on these issues, we can make a difference," he said.
As an example, he said his office, working with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and attorneys general of other states, is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to determine if EPA regulations governing greenhouse emissions from stationary sources, such as coal-fueled power plants, comply with the Clean Air Act.
Morrisey told both groups it's important to reduce the state's reliance on federal funding: Currently, he said West Virginia receives $1.60 to $1.70 back for each dollar it sends to Washington and federal funding accounts for about 36 percent of the Mountain State's budget.
He said budget cuts will change that and West Virginia must adapt.
"... Federal dollars are going to run out, we need to get serious about facing some of our economic challenges," he said.
Another common thread was the impact high income and corporate taxes have on the business climate in the Northern Panhandle.
Morrisey told Weirton resident Mark Zatezalo that West Virginia needs to be able to compete with neighboring states, pointing out that individual and corporate tax rates "drive economic growth, and when combined rates are higher than neighboring states, it's not good."
He told residents at both meetings that the state Legislature should work toward establishing a tax rate comparable to the bordering states or risk a drop in general revenues.
Jon Meriwether, owner of Merco Marine, a Wellsburg-based manufacturing firm, said it's become increasingly difficult for businesses to obtain liability insurance, with fewer providers offering coverage. He told Morrisey if more insurance providers could be attracted to the state, it would create more competitive rates.
Jim Lee, chief probation officer for Hancock, Brooke and Ohio counties, told Morrisey heroin abuse has become a major problem in the region, with many teens and young adults dying from overdoses in the last two years.
Morrisey said he's creating a task force within his office to work closely with state and local law enforcement to reduce prescription drug abuse, and has joined attorneys general from 47 other states and territories in asking the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ensure manufacturers develop tamper- and abuse-resistant forms of prescription painkillers as well as requiring generic versions of the drugs to be held to the same regulations as major brands.
The drug problem, he said, "is like a game of Whack-a-Mole. You attack one illegal drug, and another pops up in its place."
Follansbee City Manager John DeStefano told Morrisey communities across the state are struggling with an EPA-mandate to separate storm water and sanitary sewer lines.
"There's no grant money out there, so they tell us to raise our rates," DeStefano complained. "We can't raise our rates that much."
In response to an Arizona transplant's concerns about turning illegal immigrants away, Morrisey said the state should do all it can to encourage people and businesses to come to West Virginia, though at the same time it's imperative to reduce the public's dependence on federal assistance. He also said real education reform is needed, along with an improved regulatory climate, competitive tax rates and better legal climate.
"People haven't been willing to do what's necessary" in the past, he noted. "If we're not willing to do those things ... we'll be in deeper trouble in the future."