Saturday, March 17, 2018

Republicans Not Behind West Virginia's Progress

A fawning editorial in the Bluefield Daily Telegraph credited the Republican majority in Charleston with the state's recent economic growth. This is a laughable assumption. Why? Because this growth is primarily because of rising global prices for metallurgical coal and natural gas -- two commodities we have in abundance -- due to increased demand overseas.

Other states reliant on energy production have also seen economic growth; Texas, New Mexico, North Dakota and Alaska among them. While this growth is certainly to be cheered, we must also keep in mind that due to the volatile nature of the energy market, another commodity slump could undo any current gains by energy-producing states. Obviously, relying on extractive industries alone to fuel job growth is foolhardy.

Despite all the supposed pro-business measures enacted by Charleston Republicans, West Virginia is not seeing a huge influx of jobs in other sectors. The state still consistently languishes at or near the bottom of the ladder in study after study of business-friendly states.

West Virginia needs a well-educated work force to attract companies. Unfortunately, Charleston Republicans have repeatedly shown how little they value education, most notably during the recent teachers' strike. Many Republicans expressed not-so-thinly-veiled contempt for the educators who assembled in Charleston to make their voices heard. The state budget for education is something Republicans routinely target for deep cuts.

While the 2018 - 2019 budget just passed gave public employees a sorely-needed pay raise and temporarily propped up the Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA), it is still nothing to be proud of, and it was disheartening to see the Republicans patting themselves on the back after its passage.

A tiny increase in the natural gas severance tax could have provided much additional revenue to fund public employee pay raises, PEIA, and initiatives to make West Virginia more enticing to businesses looking to open or expand. Republicans fought the proposed increase tooth and nail, claiming it would cause the extraction companies to pack their bags and leave the state.

This was a ludicrous claim, since even with a 2 percent increase in the natural gas severance tax, West Virginia's rate would still have been low in comparison with other gas-producing states.

The real reason for Republican resistance to the tax increase is simply that many of them are corrupted by fossil fuel interests. Industry lobbyists routinely treat Republican lawmakers to thousands of dollars in food and drink to influence legislation crafted in Charleston, and line these legislators' pockets at the same time.

In a February 9 public hearing held by the Republican-dominated House Judiciary Committee, first-time House of Delegates candidate Lissa Lucas began to list campaign donations that committee members had received from fossil fuel interests. The Committee Chair had her removed, alleging she was revealing personal information... although the statistics Lucas cited are actually a matter of public record. That record shows oil and gas interests donated roughly $240,000 total to the 16 Republican members of the Committee.

This is the rogues' gallery the Bluefield Daily Telegraph chose to laud for all the good they have done for the state of West Virginia.

Democrats aren't blameless, either. Their decades-long hold on the state government had little to show when the GOP finally toppled them from power three years ago. They allowed big energy to plunder the state's rich reserves of coal and natural gas, with West Virginia reaping no long-term economic benefit from the billions of dollars in profits that were shipped out of state.

Any economic progress West Virginia has made has been mostly in spite of our elected officials in Charleston, not because of them.

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