Jones

By JEFFREY T. JONES

CHARLESTON -- John F. Kennedy once said, "The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie -- deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth -- persistent, persuasive, unrealistic."

When those deliberate and contrived lies are repeated, they become myth and the truth is lost.

For years now, the U. S. Chamber of Commerce and the billion-dollar corporations it represents have said over and over again that West Virginia's courts are among the worst in the country. Its allies at the corporate-funded American Tort Reform Association have called us a "judicial hellhole." Those claims have no basis in fact, but are now being taken as gospel by many just because they've been repeated so often that they have to be true.

Our West Virginia Chamber of Commerce has allied itself with these out-of-state, big money special interests. For most of the last decade, the West Virginia Chamber has been telling anyone who will listen that West Virginia is the worst place in the whole United States to do business.

It blows my mind that an organization that is supposed to be an advocate for West Virginia businesses and bring new businesses to the state continues to attack our state's business climate and discourage anyone from doing business here.

If I were an out-of-state business man and I saw the head of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce in television, radio and print advertising attacking the state's business climate and then read in the newspapers that he said that West Virginia is a bad place to do business, I wouldn't want to locate here either.

Why is an organization that is supposed to be trying to bring new businesses to West Virginia -- and with those businesses good paying jobs -- doing everything it can to keep businesses out?

The answer is that this is not your father's Chamber of Commerce -- a Chamber that lobbied hard for the interests of West Virginia small businesses and West Virginia entrepreneurs. This is a Chamber that is expending its political capital and other resources to tow the party line for billion-dollar, out-of-state corporations.

What is even more outrageous is that the information in the Chamber's ads is dead wrong. Here's the truth:

It does not cost more to do business in West Virginia than in other states. According to a 2005 cost of doing business index produced by the highly respected Milken Institute, West Virginia's business costs were the tenth lowest in the country -- 13 percent below the national average.

Even though the Chamber is discouraging new business and claiming time and time again that our civil justice system is hurting West Virginia small businesses, the number of small businesses has increased. According to statistics from the U. S. Small Business Administration, the number of West Virginia small businesses has increases from 118,700 in 2003 to 123,300 in 2005. This is attributable, undoubtedly, to our West Virginia spirit and entrepreneurship.

West Virginia doesn't even have the worst lawsuit climate in the country.

According to the National Center for State Courts, there are 39 states with the same type of two-tiered court system that West Virginia has. Where are we ranked? We're 29th -- that means that 28 of those states had more filings per capita than we did. In fact, when you consider all 50 states plus Washington D. C., West Virginia was ranked 36th. There were 35 states with more filings. Our number of filings was below the national median.

West Virginia is the worst in the country? We're not even the worst among our surrounding states. Maryland, Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky all had more lawsuits filed per capita than we did!

The truth is that in America, there used to be two places where every day Americans were equal to the most powerful corporate special interests -- at the ballot box and in the courtroom. We all know that big-money special interests have hijacked the political system. They're flooding the capitol with their teams of lobbyists and are buying elections.

Since these interests are dominating our political system, we can no longer depend on the government to hold these billion-dollar corporations and their millionaire CEOs accountable. When they refuse to pay fair and just insurance claims, produce unsafe products, pollute our environment, put their employees into dangerous workplaces, or swindle their employees out of their retirement, the only place for us to get justice is in our courts.

Now these big corporations -- helped by the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce -- are fighting to weaken our justice system. They're stripping away the very consumer protection and workplace safety laws that made sure that corporations didn't sell flammable pajamas for your children, put unsafe drugs on the market or make employees work in dangerous conditions that put their lives at risk.

The Chamber isn't advocating for a better business climate. It's advocating for total corporate immunity.

Gov. Joe Manchin is working hard every day to bring new businesses to West Virginia. Imagine how much help the Chamber could provide if it was touting what makes West Virginia a good place to do business -- instead of helping the U. S. Chamber of Commerce and the out-of-state, billion-dollar corporate interests that it represents by telling anyone who will listen that West Virginia is a bad place to do business.

Imagine if it had been touting the fact that we have the tenth lowest business costs in the country and a large work force with an unparalleled work ethic. Plus, look at the scenic beauty of our state. You couldn't find a better place to do business!

If that had been the primary message that potential businesses had been hearing over the last decade, how many more jobs could we have had?

Jones is president of the West Virginia Trial Lawyers Association.

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