BUCKHANNON — Americans for Prosperity, a conservative political advocacy group funded by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch, hosted a discussion Wednesday with one of Upshur County’s two state senators, Republican Robert Karnes.
The event was billed as a roundtable but turned out to be a one-on-one sit-down between Karnes and AFP state director Jason Huffman. The event was attended by about 40 people, including Wesleyan students and progressive activists from the local group Upshur Indivisible.
Huffman gave Karnes an opportunity to highlight some of the issues the state senator feels are important to West Virginia.
“If I were to pick one issue that can really transform West Virginia, it’s probably the tax reform that we worked on last year,” Karnes said of the legislature’s failed attempt to increase the sales tax while reducing the income tax. “There are two pieces we haven’t hit that hard. One is tax reform and one is education reform.”
While the tax reform bill was estimated to substantially increase West Virginia’s budget deficit in future years, Karnes predicted a growing economy would generate the tax revenue needed to do reforms, such as with education. Karnes home-schools his children.
Members of the activist group Upshur Indivisible — some of whom held signs asking ‘Who do you work for?’ — questioned Karnes during the public Q&A section at the end of the event.
Edwina Howard-Jack said the group was happy to engage their senator on issues they feel are important, such as supporting middle- and low-income West Virginians and diversifying the state’s economy.
“I appreciate Sen. Karnes coming and meeting with his constituents, although I felt like it was very much one-sided, with a lot of talk on his part,” Howard-Jack said. “It was nice that he did accept and answer questions. I am mostly concerned about his answers about not cutting taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and his answers about charter schools and privatizing education. I was also concerned with his lack of support of green jobs to diversify the economy.
“I didn’t hear a lot of discussion and support for our struggling low-income population in West Virginia. That is the majority of our people. I guess that’s my biggest concern.”
Howard-Jack also said she hoped Karnes, who governor Jim Justice blamed for torpedoing the tax reform bill in a closed-door meeting earlier in the summer, would commit to a more civil tone in the future.
“I was also really concerned that he wouldn’t say that he would be more civil, because he has a reputation of being very uncivil,” she said. “He called the union workers at the capitol free riders and told them to get back to work when they were trying to take a position against the ‘right to work’ bill. He blocked me on Twitter and all I did is say he was being rude to a constituent... I was concerned that he wouldn’t say, ‘I will be a better role model’ and ‘I will be more civil.’”
Despite the opposing viewpoints, Karnes said he thought Wednesday’s event was successful.
“I think it went quite well,” Karnes said. “Obviously there were people here from all different sides of the political spectrum. Around the country we have seen a lot of misbehavior, but one of the great things around West Virginia is we generally are able to disagree on issues without it getting out of hand. In fact, some of the folks from the other side of the aisle here today are people that I know and who I like.”
He also disputed the notion that he is not civil in his political discourse.
“I think there are people who would like to push that idea, but I don’t believe that is really true,” he said. “I have a pretty good rapport with people on both sides of the aisle. I sit almost completely surrounded by members of the other party in my position on the floor. I have a very good cordial relationship with all of the senators around me. I think again that is entirely blown out of proportion.”
Huffman said the Americans for Prosperity event was about policy, not about endorsing a particular politician. However, he said the group has no plans to fund any such event for Del. Bill Hamilton, who has announced he will challenge Karnes in the upcoming Republican primary.
“Frankly, Del. Hamilton was not very aligned on our issues,” Huffman said, pointing in particular to Hamilton’s vote on a roads and infrastructure bill that included increases in the gas tax and DMV fees. “We are planning on holding him accountable for casting that vote.”
Hamilton attended the event Wednesday but did not speak publicly. He did, however, respond in an interview on Thursday.
“Sen. Karnes has a different agenda than I do,” Hamilton said. “He voted no on the gas tax, but in that same bill were the DMV fees and privilege tax, which provides $136 million [annually] for the repair and building of roads and bridges.
“I voted yes. I listened to all the testimony from the DOH and others. Our roads and bridges are in a terrible mess and you cannot build or repair roads and bridges without revenue. It’s that simple.”
The upcoming road bond vote in October has split various groups around the state. The West Virginia Republican Executive Committee voted overwhelmingly to oppose it, while the Republican legislative leadership support it.
Hamilton also questioned the agenda of Americans for Prosperity.
“There are three other representatives in Upshur County who were not invited: Sen. Boso, Del. Lynch and Del. Martin,” Hamilton said. “They were all in absence at that meeting last night. If you are going to have a legislative update about the future of West Virginia, why wouldn’t you have everybody that represents Upshur County there in attendance and get their input also?”
Wednesday’s event was held at West Virginia Wesleyan College, but the school distanced itself from the political contents of the discussion.
“West Virginia Wesleyan College has never taken a stance on political candidates,” the college said in a statement. “The space was rented by an outside organization.”
Americans For Prosperity has 36 state chapters across the country, with the West Virginia chapter opening in 2015. Huffman was named the West Virginia chapter director in December 2015 after directing operations for the Republican Party of West Virginia.