CHARLESTON — During his statewide listening tour with state business leaders last year, Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch said Friday two themes were constant: The need for workforce development and for tax reform, particularly aimed at reducing the personal property tax on business equipment, machinery and inventory.

Gaunch told attendees of the West Virginia Press Association’s Legislative Lookahead at the state Culture Center that low workforce participation rates have plagued the state for a generation.

“What I’m saying is, the workers we have are among the best, we just need more of them,” he said.

Gaunch said Commerce is committed to collaborative efforts with community and technical colleges and other training programs to improve the state’s low workforce participation.

Delegate Moore Capito, R-Kanawha, said the Legislature needs to work to remove barriers that keep individuals from entering or reentering the workforce, citing 2019 legislation to expunge criminal records for nonviolent offenders.

He said the Legislature also needs to address the issue of people in rural areas who are without a driver’s license or public transportation and are unable to get to workplaces.

Delegate Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, said the state should take steps to encourage people who work out-of-state to live in West Virginia, citing the state’s recent investment to continue MARC commuter rail service from the Eastern Panhandle to Washington, D.C.

Skaff also suggested that economic development efforts should focus on growing existing West Virginia companies, and not necessarily in attempting to recruit large out-of-state corporations.

“The people that are currently here, how can we help them grow?” he asked.

In a similar vein, Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, said of economic development efforts, “I don’t think we’re going to find a silver bullet, but we’ve got some silver buckshot to throw at it.”

Skaff and Tarr disagreed on whether extending housing and employment anti-discrimination protections to the LGBTQ community would encourage businesses to invest in the state.

Tarr said expanding the Fairness Act would subject small businesses to discrimination suits, stating, “This bill is dangerous, and I will oppose it.”

“It’s 2020, everybody. I can’t believe we’re still talking about this. I can’t believe we don’t have a non-discrimination act on the books already,” Skaff countered. “This is one of those things that I think deters companies from coming here.”

Meanwhile Friday, Gaunch was critical of his predecessors entering into a memorandum of understanding with the China Energy Corp. over a proposed $84 billion investment in the state’s natural gas, power and chemical industries.

“I don’t know there was ever a promise,” Gaunch said. “I will tell you it was done backwards.”

He said at the time of the memorandum’s signing in 2017, no due diligence or site work had been done by state officials.

“Is there a project imminent? I can’t tell you that,” Gaunch said, citing non-disclosure provisions in the agreement. “I can tell you we’re closer to it today than when the agreement was announced.”

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.