The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

July 27, 2013

Lawmakers cry foul over blue ribbon panel

By Mannix Porterfield
Register-Herald Reporter

CHARLESTON — A couple of Eastern Panhandle lawmakers say the special blue ribbon panel looking into West Virginia’s highway needs at a time of depleted income are stacking the audience with those who benefit from road building and skewing polls at regional meetings.

Even the first meeting got off on a controversial note, when the gathering spot was moved from one town to another with a scant newspaper notice.

Delegate Larry Kump, R-Berkeley, agreed Friday that the need for more highway construction and maintenance is “very real,” but says the Tomblin administration is going about it the wrong way and working on “a false premise” by assuming money can only come from digging deeper into the pockets of taxpayers.

“And I fault the governor for that,” he said.

“I think more should be done to look at the way Highways is organized, the culture of the whole department, to make it more efficient.”

Kump suggested another blue ribbon commission — one of management analysts to seek ways of reorganizing the department so that highway workers are used more efficiently, at the least by reducing the number so that those remaining on the payroll get “a more fair and decent wage.”

“What really frosts me is this flim-flam they’re doing with the so-called focus group,” Kump said.

“It’s amusing, it’s fascinating, but it’s not accurate.”

Rather than use a scientific method for gauging public opinion on tax increases to finance highway building and maintenance, Kump said the focus group relies on leading questions tailored to encourage participants to support higher taxes.

“Even with loaded questions, the responses of participants was overwhelmingly against any tax increases,” he said.

“Since then, it has been much less hostile toward tax increases.”

Kump said some have told him the commission has packed the audiences with people working for contractors who stand to benefit from more road building.

“They’re trying to stack the meeting, which is not surprising,” he said.

“My argument with the contractors getting more business is we don’t need a tax revenue increase. There are other ways to increase the efficiency of the highways department which could free up more money for construction of highways.”

Delegate Michael Folk, also R-Berkeley, pointed to “glaring faults” with the poll taken at the start of the Kearneysville meeting, one of which was the act of prefacing most questions with assumptions.

As a former college instructor in marketing research, Folk said this tactic is “clearly inappropriate and would lead to skewed and unreliable polling.”

For example, he said, before a question was asked, the pollster stated the need for more revenue. Eight of 10 questions about funding asked if they favored higher taxes, leaving the impression that more money can only be derived from a boost in taxes or fees. Folk says this is flawed, based on his study of economics, finance and marketing.

“In the private sector, when prices are lowered, often total revenue and total profits both increase,” the delegate said.

Folk said this has been illustrated by a huge jump in profits after the prices of laptops fell.

“It is clear those who developed this poll do not understand their flawed research methods or poor choice of questions, or did they?” he asked.

“If they were only looking for the public to ‘pick their poison’ in the form of what tax/fee to increase, the poll was worthy. However, if they were interested in ‘the big picture,’ the poll would have asked questions regarding all sources of increased revenue.”

Folk said the state could benefit from a 30 percent boost in “bang for our buck” by regulatory and legal reforms, downsizing government and refiguring the prevailing wage.

“Businesses do not flourish in an environment where they are continuously under attack by a tyrannical federal government and to some degree a West Virginia state bureaucracy that is a maze at best, a black widow’s web at best,” Folk said.

— E-mail: mannix@register-herald.com