By PATRICK MORRISEY
A century and a half after the birth of West Virginia, the Mountain State needs to take significant steps economically in order to reach its incredible potential.
The challenges facing this state are great: sadly West Virginia consistently ranks near the bottom in almost all economic indicators, not the least of which is job growth. Businesses are struggling to make ends meet, our population growth has been anemic at best, and our core industries are under attack from an overzealous federal government.
Forbes has ranked West Virginia as the fifth worst state for business; and CNBC ranked the Mountain State 48th for competitiveness. Our state has one of the highest rates of poverty in the nation, consistently ranks at or near the bottom for per capita income, and has an exceedingly low workforce participation rate.
Fortunately, despite all of its challenges, West Virginia has the potential for a much brighter future. To reach our true potential though, all elected officials in our state need to focus like a laser beam on creating a more dynamic business environment. That is one of the reasons why the Office of the Attorney General is hosting town hall and Jobs Summit meetings throughout the state this year.
The goal of these town hall meetings is to initiate an open dialogue with local employers, organizations, and citizens about regulations and barriers they believe impede growth, discourage private investment, and place West Virginia at a competitive disadvantage. The Office then can use its authority to try to remove those barriers by working with state agencies, lawmakers, and other elected leaders to advance economic growth.
In some cases, this may mean issuing a legal opinion or filing legal challenges on behalf of the state. In other cases, it may mean counseling state agency clients on less burdensome ways to comply with our laws, or drafting legislation that will help West Virginia. Since the law permeates everything we do, our office can play a central role in driving the state of West Virginia forward. And if we don’t have the direct authority to act, we will make recommendations to those who do possess the power to take immediate action. We are all in this together.
Thus far, the Office has hosted five town hall meetings, and each has been eye-opening. One issue that consistently has been raised is the state’s tax structure and rates. Business owners and citizens alike have talked with me about how the tax structure, as it currently stands, is out of step with neighboring states, making it harder for businesses to compete on a variety of levels.
Town hall participants have voiced concerns about the impact of federal environmental regulations and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act on both their businesses and the local economy. In addition, they have raised the very serious issue of pervasive substance abuse, including the plague of prescription drug addiction, which is hurting individuals, communities, and the overall economy.
Employers say they can’t find enough qualified workers to pass drug screenings. Community members say they are sick of the crime, poverty and pain that far too often comes hand-in-hand with drug addiction. Drug addiction is impacting every aspect of this state, and this Office is committed to battling it.
More town hall and Jobs Summit meetings are being planned for this summer and fall. Our goal is to hear from as many people as we can during the next few months. Everyone is invited to attend. Our economic future isn’t a Republican or Democrat issue. It’s a West Virginian issue, and we need all West Virginians to be a part of the conversation. Every concern, issue, or perceived roadblock needs to be discussed.
The one thing we can’t do is wait or decide that change is too hard. Time is fleeting for West Virginia to transform its economy. Federal monies coming out of Washington, D.C., will soon be slowing down to a mere trickle; West Virginia is ill-prepared to deal with these decreases in federal transfer payments, which currently make up 36 percent of our state’s budget. We need to expand private sector jobs and remove impediments for job creation now.
We need to make significant strides to quickly improve our per capita income rather than continue to hover somewhere between No. 47 and No. 50 as we have since at least 1990. We also must increase the state’s labor force participation rate. That rate measures the number of working-age people who are either employed or unemployed and looking for a job.
The national labor force participation rate is typically somewhere between 67 and 68 percent. In West Virginia, that rate has climbed from a low of 43 percent in 1983 to a high of 54 percent in 2006 to 50 percent in 2012.
The positive news is that West Virginia has the wherewithal to advance economically. We remain the third largest producer of energy in the nation; our people have a tremendous work ethic; our competitive wage levels should provide us with advantages over other states, and our strategic location could allow West Virginia to be a commerce hub (we are a 10-hour drive to more than half the nation’s population). The seeds of an economic revival are ready to be planted, but we need your help.
If everyone – citizens, businesses, organizations, and leaders –comes together, we can make significant changes to this state and create a wonderful story of renewal so West Virginia reaches its true potential. With determination, integrity, and meaningful change in our business climate, we can bestow upon future generations a prosperous and thriving West Virginia. Wouldn’t that be the best 150th Birthday present for our state?
Patrick Morrisey is the Attorney General of West Virginia.