By JEFFREY T. JONES
CHARLESTON -- Senator Sprouse, as one of your constituents I have a question to ask you: "Are you not bothering to read the bills that you agree to sponsor or are you so beholden to the billion-dollar, out-of-state special interests headed by the U. S. Chamber that you are now willing to distort your own legislative record?"
It has to be one or the other since you sponsored the very venue bill that you attacked in your guest column. You wrote, that it was a "weak, watered down" bill-yet there is your name on the Senate version of the bill (SB 728) along with Senators Yoder, Guills, Barnes, Caruth, Boley, Facemyer, Sypolt, Minard, Helmick, Plymale and Deem. I understand that you now claim that you sponsored a better version than what passed the House, but, Senator, it was the same bill!
More importantly, you never spoke against that bill on the Senate floor and you voted for it. If that bill was as bad as you now claim that it is, it was your responsibility to challenge it on the floor and vote against it. You didn't. Are there other bills that you have thought were bad, but you voted for them anyway?
What is worse is that you are now not only trying to distort your own record, but also that of your colleague Sen. Jeff Kessler. You claim that the 2003 venue bill was the only so-called "tort reform" that has passed since he was named chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee that year. Since his appointment, the Legislature has passed several bills trumpeted by the U. S. Chamber as great victories. The state limited the rights of medical malpractice victims. It eliminated the right to hold insurance corporations who lowball and delay claims accountable in our courts. It made significant changes to the state's workers compensation system. It also made changes to joint and several liability, passed guidelines for experts testifying in medical malpractice cases, lowered the pre and post-judgment interest rates, made changes to the appeals bond and passed other bills as well.
It appears to me that the U. S. Chamber has been quite successful under the leadership of Senator Kessler. Did you not know what those bills were as you voted for them-just as you would now have us believe was the case with the venue bill?
And Senator, why are you repeating the propaganda and lies the U. S. Chamber is using in its attack against our state?
You cite the "hellhole" report as credible evidence. Yet consider this: In 2002, we weren't even on the list. Our rankings for the following years were sixth in 2003, fourth in 2004, third in 2005 and first in 2006. In the same period, we passed the numerous "reforms" outlined above and your friends at the U. S. Chamber and ATRA were even able to elect Brent Benjamin to the state Supreme Court. This report shows that there is a clear correlation between our ranking and tort reform-when we pass them, our ranking gets worse. If that's the case, then wouldn't we be better off not passing any of these reforms?
In addition, West Virginia's ranking in 2005 was based largely on two lawsuits regarding Teflon cookware that were never even filed here. Indeed, the report's own footnotes listed the states where those lawsuits had been filed-and West Virginia wasn't included. When a reporter pointed out the error, ATRA said that it didn't matter. How can you base your case on evidence that doesn't even exist? Talk about "junk science." Facts matter so little to them, that they couldn't even get the governor's name right in the 2006 report-he was listed as "Bob Manchin."
Then, there is the recently released Harris "study," which is supposed to be an independent analysis of our nation's legal systems. It's not. It surveys only corporate attorneys who are employed as in-house counsel by corporations that earn at least $100 million in annual profits-the very corporations who are funding the U. S. Chamber's attacks on our state and our courts. It's like surveying your kids at the dinner table on whether they would prefer liver or pizza for dinner. What do you think the answer's going to be?
The study's own authors have discredited how the Chamber uses it. Copley News Service reported that "Humphrey Taylor with Harris Interactive said the survey is based on the individual responses of the [corporate] lawyers because there is no hard data that can be used to measure the perceived fairness of a state's legal system" ("Survey says frivolous lawsuits hurt state's reputation," Copley News Service, 3/8/04).
If the U. S. Chamber isn't conspiring against the state, then why is it lying about our state's business climate to advance its political agenda of total corporate immunity? It does not cost more to do business here. The 2005 Milken Institute Cost of Doing Business Index states that business costs in West Virginia were the tenth lowest cost in the country, with costs 13 percent below the national average. Revenues for West Virginia businesses in the 2004-05 budget year came in at over $430 million -– more than thirteen percent above original budget projections. Morgantown was just named by Forbes as one of the top 10 "best small places for business and careers." The number of businesses in West Virginia is increasing. According to the U. S. Small Business Administration, the number of small businesses in West Virginia has increased from 118,700 in 2003 to 123,300 in 2005. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 11,000 jobs were created in the state between December 2004 and December 2005. In the West Virginia Development Office's 2006 annual report, Governor Manchin cited the fact that more than $1.4 billion was invested in our state's economy last year, increasing employment by more than 8,400 jobs. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis reported that West Virginia's economy grew by 3.2 percent last year, higher than surrounding states.
Senator, these are the real facts about our state's business climate. Shouldn't this information be what you share with your constituents-not propaganda and lies from the U. S. Chamber and the out-of-state, billion-dollar corporate interests it represents.
Finally, I truly believe that if you are going to be a shill for the U. S. Chamber of Commerce rather than an advocate for your constituents in the 8th District, shouldn't you at least get the guy's name right? It's Tom DonoHUE-not Donohoe as was written in your column. But then, getting the facts right never really mattered to them either.
Jones is president of the West Virginia Association for Justice.