By BRUCE SCHREINER
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) â¿¿ For decades, coal from West Virginia's vast deposits was mined, loaded on rail cars and hauled off without leaving behind a lasting trust fund financed by the state's best-known commodity. Big coal's days are waning, but now a new bonanza in the natural gas fields has state leaders working to ensure history doesn't repeat itself.
West Virginia's Senate president, Jeff Kessler, is pushing to create an oil and natural gas trust fund to support core government functions decades from now. His goal: a cushion of funds long after the gas is depleted to buoy an Appalachian mountain state chronically vexed by poverty, high joblessness, and cycles of boom and bust.
The Democratic Senate leader said the previous generation missed out on creating a permanent fund based on coal severance tax revenues. Current residents, he said, should be prudent and set aside a part of the revenue from the extraction of natural gas to benefit future generations.
"Had we had the good sense to put a few cents aside of every ton of coal ... that has come out of our ground, we'd probably be the richest state in the Union instead of in many respects the poorest," Kessler said.
Indeed, supporters say the future health and welfare of the state is, to some extent, at stake. West Virginia consistently has ranked among the states with the lowest life expectancy while grappling with problems of obesity, education and drug abuse.
"This is really about protecting the long-term fiscal health of the state," said Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. "Without a plan for the future, we're likely to continue to experience a lack of economic diversity, cycles of boom and bust and poor economic outcomes."
Kessler's isn't a new concept. Other states with abundant natural resources have set up legacy funds as Alaska voters did in 1976 with a constitutional amendment creating the Alaska Permanent Fund to protect a portion of that state's oil wealth for future generations. That vote came amid construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline and the fund is now worth billions.