Issues, Issues: West Virginia, 2014
RT has been canvassing for a local candidate for the West Virginia legislature, Kris Loken, who is running for the WV House of Delegates 62nd district seat. An organized, focused, and determined lady, Ms. Loken served in the U.S. diplomatic corps for 27 years, and has been actively involved in local causes since her arrival in the state some years back. RT thinks she would make a great delegate.
Canvassing has been an eye-opening experience for RT, bringing him as it does into contact with a wide range of people and life stories. In particular, it has made him think carefully about what policies and approaches, other than the rather limited (though important) suggestions on the burner right now, would help WV climb out of the difficult spot it finds itself in.
What ails West Virginia is a syndrome hard to diagnose. Some problems, nonetheless, are easy to identify:
1) Demand for coal, WV’s leading export, has recently plummeted. In 2013, the value of state coal exports fell 40%, from $7.4 to $4.4 billion. And this in spite of the fact that WV coal contains about 50% more energy than coal from Wyoming, which today is the United State’s leading producer of coal. The problem? WV coal is high in sulfur dioxide and costs more to extract–the easily reachable deposits have all been mined.
2) Wages in West Virginia continue to fall. Historically, the best paying jobs in the state have been in manufacturing, chemicals, and mining. Employment in all these sectors has fallen dramatically for decades, while the number of low paying service sector jobs has increased. Unionization has also declined, and the result of these changes has been a significant drop in worker income.
3) Young workers, educated in West Virginia, continue to leave the state in large numbers. With college tuition, as throughout the country, increasing dramatically in West Virginia, young workers often leave the state looking for better-paying jobs, if for no other reason than to pay off their student loans.
The debate continues over what to do about these changes, but seems, in RT’s opinion, to be bogged down in details, which, while important, do not give us overall goals for West Virginia. What is lacking is a sense of direction or momentum. No big picture solutions are being offered. RT offers a few suggestions:
1) Take advantage of the resources already available in the state. Leaders will often talk of the West Virginia’s coal and natural gas resources, but no so often of its human resources. If, as seems apparent to RT, workers in the state tend to show mechanical genius, a trait possibly left over from the glory days of manufacturing and railroads, then why not encourage the use of these skills? Why have glass manufacturing and pottery production, once big employers, been allowed to languish?
2) Encourage small businesses in West Virginia. Small businesses generate jobs, and their expenditures and profits remain within the state.
But starting a small business is no small feat: these days, a prospective small business owner must have excellent credit to obtain a start-up loan, and the extra hours and devotion to producing a high-quality service can easily exhaust the owners; finally, there are the paperwork requirements and local taxes.
The solution, as far as RT can see, is the creation of small business zones, areas that remove some of these barriers to economic development. These zones would offer not just tax breaks for businesses less than three years old, but also reduce monthly state, county, and municipal paperwork to a single document no longer than four pages and provide customized help from the state employment agency in finding appropriate staff.
RT recommends implementing this program in the Charleston, Huntington, Wheeling, Beckley, and Martinsburg areas.
3) Legalize recreational marijuana. In 2011, PBS ranked West Virginia as one of the biggest marijuana producing states in the country. Legalize, regulate, and tax marijuana in West Virginia–or at least legalize its medical use. And while we’re at it, let’s legalize hemp and its many uses.
hmmm…RT can see that while this post looks at some important issues, it doesn’t really offer a glimpse of what the overall direction West Virginia should be going in…a big topic for his next post.
Want to help West Virginia Democrats? Here are a couple of links:
Photo: Saturday Afternoon Street Scene, Welch, McDowell County, WV, 1946. Russell Lee. WikiCmns. NARA – 541004. Public Domain.