By Pamela Pritt
West Virginia has long relied on its natural resources and extractive industries for its economic base. But with coal production expected to decline in the next few years, and Marcellus shale gas drilling not quite at peak performance, the state’s budget is in a pinch.
The House of Delegates voted Friday to enact Project Launchpad, which is aimed at diversifying the state’s economy and attracting technology entrepreneurs to do business here, particularly in economically distressed areas.
Project Launchpad will allow the governor to pick up to 10 proposals that promote economic development in counties or municipalities with plans to attract new businesses with the primary components of “emerging technologies,” “innovative business technology” or “state of the art technology.” Businesses would be exempt from a variety of state taxes and receive tax credits for the number of jobs produced and for offering health care to employees.
The projects have to be on contiguous acreage and cannot encompass an entire county or municipality.
Proponents of the bill said it helps West Virginia compete with similar projects in other states, while the bill’s critics said it was cumbersome and would mean lower tax revenues.
Delegate Patrick Lane, R-Kanawha, supported the bill.
“It’s important to promote West Virginia in any way we can,” Lane said. “New jobs are a vital interest.”
However, Lane said he agrees with the bill’s critics that it is cumbersome.
“If this is the only bill that we can get through during this session, which is going to encourage areas of the state to reform their business and job-creation climate, so that we can attract new industries and create new jobs in West Virginia, then I’m all for it,” Lane said.
The Kanawha County delegate went a step further and said that eventually, every county in the state should be a Project Launchpad.
His Republican colleagues were not so enamored of the bill.
Delegate Daryl Cowles, R-Morgan, called the bill a “scheme of picking winners and losers.”
“It includes no jobs of today, and no workers of today. It doesn’t include the businesses of today or the technologies of today,” Cowles said.
Delegate Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, pointed out that a nearly identical bill passed the House last year with little debate. Skaff said he is puzzled at the turn-around in sentiment.
“A vote against this bill says you want to continue down the same path with existing jobs that we have, with outside regulations affecting (us) that won’t let us expand,” Skaff said.
Skaff said every county in the state will have the opportunity to be a Project Launchpad site.
Delegate Ray Canterbury, R-Greenbrier, questioned the bill because of tax exemptions, noting that the businesses and their employees would use public highways, public schools and other public conveniences.
House Finance Chair Brent Boggs said the benefits of new jobs, with employees having more purchase power in local businesses, would outweigh the potential cost to the state in lost taxes.
The bill passed 85-10, with Canterbury and Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer, among those voting nay.