By CHARLES OWENS
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Sen. Bill Cole, R-Mercer, is both encouraged, and discouraged, by what he is seeing in Charleston.
“I’m discouraged that we went through the off year and didn’t do anything to help West Virginia,” Cole, the freshman senator who defeated Democrat Mark Wills last year in the closely watched Senate District 6 race, said. “But I’m encouraged because I see the path forward to making a difference.”
Cole said his fellow senators are a “pretty moderate bunch” who are able to work together on important issues without being overtaken by partisan politics. However, he isn’t satisfied with what was accomplished during the recent legislative session.
“We didn’t pass a single business, job-friendly, piece of legislation,” Cole said. “No tax reform. Nothing that addresses business. We had an education bill, and while it did some good things for education, it fell short of the needed reform. We are roughly 48 (in the nation) in student achievement. I don’t think a single thing we did in that bill will do anything to improve student achievement. We have made it an easier department to manage, and we’ve freed up some calendar issues.”
Cole said the prison reform bill should help. He doesn’t view the new law as something that will make it easier on criminals. He is disappointed by the fact that he and Sen. Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, were unable to get the House-backed turnpike toll removal bills to the full Senate floor for a vote. And he’s particularly concerned about the number of studies that are commissioned in Charleston versus actual action by his fellow lawmakers.
“Any decision someone doesn’t want to make they kick the proverbial can down the road,” Cole said. “Any decision anyone doesn’t want to be responsible for making — they say let’s study it. The education audit cost $750,000. It’s called an audit, but it’s a study. So rather than do any of that (in the audit) we hired a guy at $350 a day to study the study, and he did for over a year. And during the last day of the legislative session, we created a job, a six-figure job, and gave him a full-time job.”
Cole said he joined Chafin in co-sponsoring a bill that would have returned $1 million in turnpike toll revenues to the counties that the 88-mile toll road covers. That legislation — just like the near unanimously House-passed turnpike toll removal bill introduced by Delegate Marty Gearheart, R-Mercer — also died in the Senate.
“It doesn’t take the unfair tax off of Mercer County, but it would have been an extra million dollars that Mercer County and the other counties could have used,” Cole said. “But that got shot down too.”
Cole believes if lawmakers had acted on the recommendations made in several of the studies in question — the state could have saved more than $140 million. That is almost more than double the cost the state Division of Highways estimated it would take to bring the turnpike into it’s maintenance schedule.
Although they represent different political parties, Cole said he and Chafin are united for southern West Virginia.
“It’s real good,” Cole said of his relationship with Chafin. “Truman has been a staunch supporter of the south. I genuinely believe that. He knows how the system works better than anyone else up there. I have a great relationship with Truman. It doesn’t mean we agree on everything. We do have philosophical differences. But I hate that he is no longer in the leadership. I think things could have went different if had retained his leadership position.”
Cole said finding the funding needed to jump start construction on the King Coal Highway in Mercer County is critical to the region’s future. The project has been stalled in Mercer County since the completion of the Christine Kinser Bridge back in 2008 near Stoney Ridge and the Mercer Mall.
But the importance of the King Coal Highway extends beyond just Mercer County. He views the completion of the four-lane corridor — the future replacement of U.S. Route 52 — as vital to McDowell County as well.
“Build the highway — end of the story,” Cole said. “McDowell County has mined more coal than any county in the state. But the dollars — it’s been a one-way trip out of the county. But there is a great group of people down there who have not given up on their county, and they are doing everything they can. I will work with them every step of the way.”
Cole said Washington’s war on coal has also impacted coal severance dollars for southern West Virginia.
Cole is noncommittal when asked about his political future. Although he has been asked by the National Republican Party to consider challenging veteran Democrat Nick Rahall in West Virginia’s Third Congressional District, Cole said his priority is to his family and the state of West Virginia.
“First and foremost my consideration is for my family,” he said. “Then beyond that I think where I will have the most impact for West Virginia is where I will most gravitate to.”
— Contact Charles Owens at firstname.lastname@example.org