Senate presidency race looms for Kessler

By westvirginia on October 17, 2011
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By Steven Allen Adams | West Virginia Watchdog

CHARLESTON — On Oct. 4, Senate President and Acting Governor Earl Ray Tomblin won the special election for Governor of West Virginia and will take office sometime in the next few weeks as the vote is finalized and other formalities are finished.

But the election isn’t quite over, at least for Acting Senate President Jeff Kessler (D-Marshall), who also plans to drop “acting” from his title.

“I believe I have the commitments from a majority of senators, both in the caucus and the floor, to prevail,” Kessler said. “These are many of the same guys who made the commitment to me previously and never went anywhere, so I don’t believe they’re going anywhere this time.”

After U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd died in the summer of 2010, Gov. Joe Manchin ran in a special election for the remaining two years left on Byrd’s term of office. Manchin defeated Republican businessman John Raese to become West Virginia’s next U.S. Senator.

Tomblin, who has served as Senate President since 1995, was next in the line of succession and also held the honorary title of lieutenant governor. In November 2010 Tomblin took an oath of office to “act as governor.”

Tomblin could have served as the acting governor and ran the state Senate, but both Tomblin and senators wanted to maintain a separation of powers. Senate Democrats caucused in December 2010 and voted to make Kessler the acting senate president in a 16-12 vote. In January 2011 the full state Senate voted 21-12 to adopt new rules creating the acting senate president position.

“We had a relative period of…transition,” Kessler said. “When Senator Byrd died, we had somebody who had been in the Senate for 50 years. We had Earl Ray Tomblin, who had been Senate President for 15-16 years. We had a governor who had been in place for six years. People are not always open to change and they’re nervous or hesitant when any kind of change occurs. Despite the shuffling of people and titles West Virginia continued to make progress.”

Despite efforts to challenge Kessler’s authority, the Senate went back to business, passing a 1 percent reduction in the Food Tax, pay raises for teachers and public workers, and this last special session giving 5 percent of Coal Severance Tax revenues back to the county of origin.

“Although I may have been the acting president and there may have been some rough days at the beginning of the session, by the time we found our sea legs we were humming over here and we were passing legislation at breakneck speed,” Kessler said. “We were getting things done without any infighting.”

“We worked with Governor Tomblin to pass nearly the entirety of his legislative agenda, including the food tax,” he said. “Not only did we embrace the food tax to reduce it, we have it on a plan to eliminate it entirely.”

The state Senate also passed bills creating Marcellus Shale regulations and funding the nearly $8 billion Other Post-Employment Benefit (OPEB) debt, even though both bills didn’t get out of the House of Delegates.

“We’ve got our fiscal house in order with the exception of one other item, and that’s OPEB, so I want to tackle OPEB and get that under control,” Kessler said. “That’s the last piece of the long-term financial debt problem that’s on our plate.”

The Senate’s Marcellus Shale bill is the draft bill being used by the Joint Marcellus Shale Committee as they craft amendments. The new bill will be on the agenda for the 2012 regular session.

“We’ve got what everyone else needs, and that’s energy,” Kessler said. “Both the Coal reserves and the Marcellus opportunities are huge opportunities for the state, particularly with Marcellus. If we do it right with a fair and reasonable regulatory program and put statutory oversight in place we’ll be in a position to really take off as a state and create real wealth, jobs, and opportunities here. I want to be part of that.”

Once Tomblin resigns as Senate President and steps down from his Logan County Senate seat, senators will have to elect a new senate president. Kessler would like to keep his job, but both Sens. Brooks McCabe (D-Kanawha) and Mike Green (D-Raleigh) are soliciting votes.

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