District changes okay with sitting senator
Population shifts to the north and east of West Virginia have shifted power from the southern coal fields. And elected officials from more central areas in the state have felt the aftershocks.
Senator Walt Helmick (D-Pocahontas) said last week that the changes were promising for him. In many ways, it brings him home.
"The district changed in a positive way for me," he said. "I'm not sure what it does for the state."
Helmick will now represent all of Pocahontas, Randolph, Nicholas, Webster, Upshur and Pendleton, losing a portion of Berkeley and Grant counties and all of Morgan, Hampshire and Hardy counties.
"I was forced to the west," he said. "The new district is 187 miles long from Montgomery to Petersburg and beyond. The new district is still the largest, by far. Nobody comes close."
His current district is the largest in the state, and his new district will be, area-wise, the same.
As for what counties were assembled to form a district, he said he likes his new district because he's represented those counties before. But, he said, one county has more in common with Pocahontas County than any other, and that county was denied him.
"Greenbrier," he said. "Greenbrier County should have been with us. Greenbrier is a natural. Greenbrier fits."
The senator ticked off the common ground the two counties share including banking (First Citizens Bank has offices in Lewisburg and White Sulphur Springs), roadways, since US 219 vertically stripes both Pocahontas and Greenbrier, tourism and one more thing.
"When we flood, it doesn't [end up flooding] Summersville," Helmick said. "[The Greenbrier River] floods Greenbrier."
Helmick only briefly referred to the upheaval in the State Senate last year that took him out of his seat as the powerful Chair of Finance. Helmick refused to back Sen. Jeff Kessler (D-Marshall) as acting president of the Senate when Earl Ray Tomblin, who was the Senate president, became acting governor, replacing Joe Manchin, who was elected to the late Robert C. Byrd's United States Senate seat. When that's the way the wind blew in the end, Helmick was left with his convictions and a literal back seat chair in the Senate chambers. He was notably absent at the State of the State address last January.
"I have an outspoken stance against things that I feel are wrong and I don't make apologies for that," he stated. "There should have been more controversy (in redistricting). I'm a staunch believer in a third party, an independent, non-partisan entity that lays out the map, according to the Constitution."
Thus, the senator who had been perhaps the most familiar with the redistricting process 10 years ago, voluntarily took himself out of play in this year's redistricting plan, allowing what he called the "new team" to draw out districts.
Helmick said that some of the turbulence from the volatile legislative session was reflected in the new redistricting plan, however. The new district encompasses three incumbents: Helmick, Clark Barnes (R-Randolph) and Greg Tucker (D-Nicholas).
In fact, the redistricting plot thickens because Helmick and Tucker may oppose each other in the next regular election. He allowed that redistricting is "always drawn to protect incumbents."
"Something gives in the next three years," he said. " I don't think that will really present a real problem. It's time for a change. I have to be patient; things change overnight. I have to be prepared for change. Obviously, I am."
Much speculation has been given to Helmick seeking a statewide office and he admitted that he is interested in such a move. He wouldn't say which office, but the Charleston Daily Mail recently reported that he may run for Commissioner of Agriculture.
Helmick is not a farmer, but does own an extensive amount of property in Minnehaha Springs where he bottles spring water.
"The farming world has changed. It's a $60 million budget with 320 employees in that agency. We need management in that operation now. It's not agriculture as we traditionally knew it. It's business," he said. "We've got to manage it."
Helmick touched on other West Virginia issues, in addition to redistricting.
The senator said OPEB (Outside Public Employee Benefits) is a burden every state resident bears and will take several years of creative legislating to lessen.
"Down the road, we owe so much money, it's staggering," Helmick said.
OPEB was a deal cut with teachers and other state employees in 1982 during a recession. In lieu of a raise, lawmakers then agreed to pay for health insurance for those employees after their retirement. At the time, Helmick said a family health insurance plan cost $82 a month. No one foresaw the exorbitant hike in health insurance benefits, which now costs $1,100 a month for a family plan, he said.
"I don't think they had any idea what they were doing," Helmick said.
Nor did they foresee what revenue some call a vice would bring the state.
Helmick said Boone County averaged in excess of $60 million dollars in tax revenue for the state and was for a long time, the county with the most tax revenue to share.
Now, it's tiny Jefferson County, which sent more than $170 million to West Virginia's coffers from its gambling facility.
"West Virginia is doing well because ﾑgrandma' spent her Social Security check at the races," Helmick said, while pointing out that "grandma" came from northern Virginia, Baltimore and Washington, DC. Gambling rakes in $741 million and did not exist as a state-sponsored activity 15 years ago.
Even with that boost in tax revenue, West Virginia still owes more than $15 billion in OPEB and generates only $4 billion annually.
To pay its debt, Helmick said, would be the equivalent of shutting the state's doors, including all services and schools for four years.
"Our biggest problem is not OPEB. This damn drug thing will be greater than that, time and again. It's killing our workforce; it's killing our education system. We have to get to the core problem. It's eating us alive," he said.