Four House of Delegates 51st District candidates address PEIA, cannabis and more

MORGANTOWN — The Dominion Post Editorial Board met with four of 12 candidates for the House of Delegates 51st District on Monday, to hear their views on various issues.

The four were: incumbent Republican Cindy Frich, incumbent Democrats Rodney Pyles and John Williams, and American Freedom Union challenger Harry Bertram. The remaining candidates are set to come before the board at other meetings.

Cindy Frich

Frich is seeking her sixth term. “I’ve always wanted to make West Virginia a place where our children can receive a good education and have opportunities available to them to remain in the state, provide for their families and retire in a healthy, safe community,” she said.

Last session she voted for a cigarette tax hike but otherwise hasn’t voted for any tax hikes that have passed and taken effect, she said. She seeks a balance to regulation to protect people but not interfere with business. She aims to address the opioid crisis through her committee posts on Finance, Health and Substance Abuse.

Pyles is seeking his second term. He brings to the job, he said, his long tenure as Monongalia County Assessor and prior and current posts including state director of Archives and History, assistant curator of the WVU Library and Morgantown’s Historic Landmarks Commission.

Rodney Pyles

He would support legislation to protect sexual orientation and gender identity under the Human Rights Act and passage of family protection act making it illegal for employers to discriminate based on family responsibilities. He would also support a tuition loan forgiveness program for people who major in certain fields and stay in state for three years, and expanding PROMISE to cover the full cost for student in certain fields.

Williams is also seeking his second term. He’s worked on roads bills, including one co-sponsored with Delegate Joe Statler, R-Monongalia, to change the formula on how the Division of Highways allocates money, to one based on road miles and vehicle traffic.

“I do believe that government can provide solutions to difficult problems to help people who need it,” he said. He co-sponsored the Shared Tables bill to allow schools to distribute excess food to students. “I think that investing in public education is a silver bullet to a variety of our problems in West Virginia.”

John Williams

Bertram, a railroad engineer, describes himself as a conservative America-first candidate. He’s running to give people another choice.

He believes in “less government, less taxes, less regulation, pretty much like Mr. Trump does on a local scale. … I’m a working class person. I want to stand up for the small businessman, the taxpayer, working class people who would want a strong voice in the state Legislature” on those issues.

Each listed three top priorities.

Bertram would like to learn more about the DMV fee hikes used to help fund the Roads to Prosperity program are being used. “It seems like we’re still not getting enough stuff done.” The DOH needs to hire more people and pay them more.

Harry Bertram

He opposes a move by railroad companies to reduce train crews to one person, he said, “They’re depending on technology to stop that train,” with no backup for emergencies. “It’s a job issue, it’s a safety issue, it’s just not good for anybody.”

He also supports Second Amendment rights, he said.

Williams said roads are the topic he gets contacted the most about. The state needs good roads to help attract business and talented people.

Public education need investment through better teacher salaries, he said, and the banking problem that prevents the medical cannabis program from functioning properly needs to be fixed.

Pyles also is concerned about roads. “Certainly that is the issue we’re confronted with the most when we hear from our constituents.” There needs to be a better avenue of communication between residents and the DOH. He sponsored a failed bill to create a DOH hotline, but DOH started one anyway.

He advocates for senior citizens, he said, and sponsored a bill to remove Social Security income tax for people making $100,000 or less. He also wants to see a livable home tax credit for home modifications.

Historic preservation is high on his list and he introduced a bill to allow cities to control traffic in their downtowns if an alternate route is available.

Frich said she will continue to pursue her agenda of related issues: jobs, sound regulations, a drug-free workforce, a sustainable budget and combating the opioid epidemic.

In 2017 she was lead sponsor of the Drug Overdose Monitoring Act, she said, and last session co-sponsored five bills to address the crisis.

They addressed the ongoing effort to fix the PEIA funding problem. All are awaiting recommendations from the task force.

Pyles, Williams and Frich all oppose privatizing it. Frich noted the current program is run pretty efficiently so privatizing wouldn’t really help.

Bertram said privatizing it may be inevitable. Raising the severance tax to support it will just drive drillers out of the state. The key is to grow the economy and stimulate spending to increase tax revenue.

Pyles said the governor last session proposed a variety of tax measures that could help pay for PEIA: a higher income tax for higher earners, a sugary drink tax, a sales tax hike, sin tax hikes on alcohol and tobacco and a severance tax hike on oil and gas.

He notes that a sales tax of half a cent will raise $100 million but is hesitant to support it because home rule cities are using added sales tax and counties may do the same.

Williams also supports a tobacco tax hike and reformation of the personal income tax reform to make it more progressive.

He backs raising the oil and gas severance tax. “I don’t think increasing it would hurt the industry.” He said that during the years-long dip in prices, production still increased. The gas is here so this is where the drillers have to come.

Frich said she’s wary of opening the code to raise a sugary drink tax because the current pop tax supports WVU’s medical school and she doesn’t want to jeopardize that. She did vote for a beer tax hike bill that failed.

She opposes raising the severance tax, which is already higher that Ohio’s and Pennsylvania’s. And the severance tax is volatile, she said. PEIA funding needs to come from the General Fund.

On the issue of the state’s medical cannabis program, which takes effect July 1, 2019, Williams said, “We really need it.” Using it for pain management is a key to addressing the opioid crisis.

Since cannabis is still federally illegal and categorized as Schedule 1, with no medical value, the state treasurer won’t handle the money generated by the program. So Williams advocates for a cashless, closed-loop payment system that involves the exchange of credits. He wants to see the banking issue solved during the 2019 session.

Pyles agreed that the Legislature needs to do whatever is necessary to fix the law. He pointed the finger, as other delegates have, at former speaker Tim Armstead for twice blocking efforts to fix the program this year.

Frich, chair of the Banking and Insurance Committee, voted against the original program bill in 2017, believing it’s a gateway drug.

She said she foresaw the banking problem the state treasurer raised during the last session. “I didn’t understand how it would be possible the state could bank the money.”

She sees three possible solutions, none of them with much potential. The treasurer could bring program cash, in guarded armored cars, to the Capitol; she doesn’t think the treasurer would go for that.

She also doesn’t think the treasured would interested I the closed loop system. A third possibility is a state bank to handle all the fees and taxes, but considering how much trouble state agencies have with their jobs – the DOH’s inability to keep up with potholes, for instance – she doesn’t support creating one more agency.

Bertram said he supports the program and getting it fixed, but opposes going further to legalize recreational use.

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