Republican Bill Cole and Democrat Jim Justice met for their second and final televised debate last night in Charleston.
Much like the first, they spent a lot of time talking about the economy and the lack of revenue causing major budget shortfalls, but the night was also dotted with responses to scandals at both the national and state level.
The nearly hour-long debate pitted the two front runners against one another in front of a small audience of select supporters of the sponsors, the West Virginia Broadcasters Association and internet provider CityNet.
Exactly one week since their first meeting, both Cole and Justice seemed more prepared for questions about both their politics and policy, including their opinions on the presidential race.
Over the weekend, a tape of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump describing ways he had sexually assaulted women was leaked to the media. Cole, who has been a staunch supporter of Trump, said as a father and a husband, he did not support Trump’s statements, but he would still support the candidate.
“In West Virginia, we have a choice, a very clear choice, between a candidate, Donald Trump, that is going to support our fossil fuel industries, our coal and our natural gas industries, and we have a candidate, Jim’s candidate Hillary Clinton, that is out to destroy our coal industry,” Cole said.
Justice has repeatedly separated himself from the Democratic presidential nominee, saying he would not vote for Clinton and repeated those sentiments Tuesday night.
“It’s preposterous for a coal man to be a supporter of Hillary Clinton,” Justice said. “I don’t know why we continue with those lies and they’re just absolute lies.”
When pressed on who he would support in the presidential race, Justice said he would leave the ballot blank, although he did mention several times his previous meetings with Trump and another meeting with former President Bill Clinton.
The Coal Industry
But coal-- the fossil fuel-- didn’t just appear in the issue of presidential politics. As the owner and operator of coal companies in several states, Justice’s business practices were detailed over the weekend in an NPR investigation.
The report found Justice owes more than $15 million in unpaid county, state and federal taxes and unpaid mine safety fines, including more than $3 million in severance taxes to the state of West Virginia.
“We pay annually, over the last four years and four years at a time when business was slow, we pay annually $70.7 million in taxes every year,” Justice claimed. “Now, you have disputes, you have issues, you have payments plans, you work through it, but I tell you what I won’t do. I didn’t declare bankruptcy did I?”
Justice quickly shifted away from his delinquent taxes and safety fines to criticizing Cole over two pieces of legislation passed under his administration that loosened some regulations on the coal industry.
Supporters said the regulations were antiquated and prevented the industry from being competitive. Justice said Cole was putting miners’ lives at risk, but his opponent was quick to respond.
“To take a shot at me saying safety is not important to me, you have more unpaid mine safety fines than any coal operator in the nation and yet you can somehow say to me that miner safety isn’t important to me.”
An NPR report did find Justice owed more in unpaid mine safety fines than any other operator in the U.S., but injury rates in his mines are only double those of other delinquent mines during their delinquency, not all mines in operation.
The Looming Budget Gap
Beyond Justice’s operations, the coal industry also came up in a discussion of how to close an anticipated budget gap. Justice said the state will soon see more severance tax revenue as global coal prices rebound.
The Democrat also said the gap can be closed by sweeping state agency accounts -- a tactic used by the current governor and legislature over the past few years- - by reevaluating the severance tax rate on natural resources like coal and natural gas, and by borrowing the rest.
Continued cuts and raising taxes on West Virginians both seemed to be out of the question for Justice.
Cole, on the other hand, continued to push his stance that state government is too large for the waning population, but when pressed on this issue of raising taxes, said this.
“We’re facing a budget crisis like none other than we’ve ever faced,” Cole said. “To take anything off the table, I think, it not prudent.”
Borrowing money, Cole said, “should be a nonstarter.”
The candidates debated education standards, teacher pay, and Justice’s commitment to continue to coach high school basketball in Greenbrier County while he’s in office.
The third-party candidates in the race, Charlotte Pritt, David Moran, and Phil Hudok, did not meet polling requirements set by the sponsors in order to participate.
The three will participate in a West Virginia Public Broadcasting candidate forum later this month.