BY STEVE COHEN
CHARLESTON -- Before deer season we could well know the new state slogan for West Virginia.
"Open for Business" just didn't cut it, probably because every survey of state economies placed West Virginia at the bottom of national rankings. The 2007 Forbes Magazine is especially stinging because West Virginia, the "worst state for business," in their view, borders Virginia, the best place to create jobs.
It must be an embarrassment to Gov. Joe Manchin who proudly displayed the new highway signs with the saying in his first State of the State address. Yet on no fewer than 11 occasions in the last 30 months, employers have eliminated more than 100 jobs at a time.
The year Manchin was elected, a major chemical plant near the capital shut down citing the cost of fending off lawsuits here. As a matter of fact, while employment in the U.S. chemical industry has dipped less than 10 percent in the last 20 years, such West Virginia jobs have vanished at five times the national rate. Dow has roughly a fifth of the West Virginia jobs it had at the start of the decade.
Since June of last year, West Virginia has seen 1,500 manufacturing jobs disappear from 147 firms which closed their doors. One West Virginia University economist estimates 2,200 manufacturing jobs have vanished in the first quarter of this year alone.
For the last two decades, West Virginia's average income has been lower than at least 47 other states. The average wage of a West Virginia worker is nearly $8,500 less than workers in other states, according to one recent finding. More than 15 percent of West Virginians live below the poverty line, a 63 percent difference from the national average. An astounding 2 in 5 West Virginia children live in a household where no parent has full-time, year-round employment.
The Census Bureau tells us that more West Virginia firms are closing than opening. The nation as a whole has seen a jump in job providers, but West Virginia has lost a thousand more employers than it has gained, the government says. Federal figures also report that only one other state has experienced slower economic growth than West Virginia.
Underlying this data is the $10 million lawsuit slapped against a fast-food chain for serving a slice of cheese on a sandwich to a Morgantown customer who allegedly developed an allergic reaction. Then, there's the West Virginia doctor to whom personal injury lawyers paid nearly $10 million for potentially fraudulent medical exams in a lawsuit mill. Personal injury lawyers presented to a West Virginia court one of his diagnoses certified by a physician who doesn't even exist; yes, a fake doctor.
Two of the most popular suggestions for a new state slogan on a David Letterman Top Ten list will certainly be "Hopin' for Business" or "Open for Lawsuits." Let's just hope that by the time we sit down to enjoy our venison at the family table this fall, the governor and the Legislature will realize jobs will not grow here until they fix the broken lawsuit system in this state.
Cohen is executive director of West Virginia Citizens Against Lawsuit Abuse.