WHEELING - West Virginia never should extend collective bargaining rights to its public employees, according to all seven gubernatorial hopefuls who debated Tuesday night.
Citing fiscal and public safety concerns, each was firm in his or her stance on the issue - one that has forged deep divisions in other states like Ohio and Wisconsin in recent months. West Virginia is among the states that do not bargain collectively with employees.
Bill Maloney of Morgantown was succinct on the issue, taking only about five of his allotted 60 seconds to answer the question.
"It's pretty simple. No. Period," he said.
According to Putnam County Prosecutor Mark Sorsaia, it's important for West Virginia to treat its employees fairly, as well as fight the stigma that conservatives who oppose collective bargaining are "anti-public employee."
"That's not the case. The Republican Party is for fiscal responsibility," he said.
State Sen. Clark Barnes of Randolph County said state employees and teachers comprise the state's largest voting bloc, and as such wield enormous power over legislators though they have no collective bargaining rights. He pointed to the Legislature's recent vote to spend $67 million on public employee pay raises.
Extending such power, he said, would give them "a political football" to throw around election time.
Ralph William Clark said collective bargaining is a "perverse and dysfunctional incentive" but noted he wouldn't oppose raises for employees if the state is in the fiscal position to grant them.
Delegate Mitch Carmichael of Jackson County said the state must "get the unions out of the classroom" and return control of education to individual county school boards.
According to former Secretary of State Betty Ireland, teachers' biggest enemy is "regulation that comes down from Washington" that she said encourages "teaching to the test, dumbing down the curriculum and not letting our kids soar."
Ireland also touched on higher education, saying there should be more focus on technical programs. She pointed out the site of the debate, WVNCC, has found success in fulfilling the needs of non-traditional students.
"Not everybody needs a four-year college degree," she said.
Another issue that got some attention was curbing drug abuse in the Mountain State. Former Delegate Larry Faircloth vowed to "declare war on the illegal drug trade" that is "destroying families and young people" around West Virginia.
Carmichael said as a state delegate, he has proposed legislation to require residents who receive public assistance to submit to random drug testing as a condition of their benefits. If elected governor, he said he would continue to push for such a measure.
Ireland also believes the war on drugs should be a priority. Combating the lack of a drug-free, educated work force in West Virginia is essential to entice businesses to create jobs in the state.