Making WV a vibrant, wonderful place to live for everyone is not a partisan issue. It’s the West Virginia we all want—the West Virginia of our dreams—and despite the lingering rancor of the recent election, it’s worthwhile to point out that West Virginia citizens are all on the same side, no matter their party.
The battle we need to fight is not Republicans versus Democrats; it’s Citizens against the Plutarchy.
So let’s take a moment first to recognize what problems we are all facing.
The West Virginia We Are
There is plenty here that’s wonderful. I love West Virginia. This state is so beautiful.
… but the truth is that our government is not functioning as a state government right now. It’s been said before: WV functions more as a resource extraction colony than a state. The constitutional rights of our citizens are being brushed aside by Big Pharma, Big Banks, Big Corporations, and Big Energy. They come here to take what we’ve got and leave us with nothing, or less than nothing. Right now, we’re in the hole. And what we get is an argument where one side seems to be arguing that we need to give up on clean water, and the other side seems to be arguing that we need to give up on good jobs.
But here’s the effect of that state of things, the effect of arguing this false dichotomy: we are consistently buried under budget problems we don’t need. And although Republican leadership of the legislature was particularly egregious in their indifference to important priorities, Democrats are guilty as well. Not all Republicans, not all Democrats, I grant you. But let’s be honest here: it’s both parties. And we are simply not going to be able to get past this issue if every time someone brings up the budget, the response from both sides is “It’s your fault! No, it’s yours, not mine! I know you are, but what am I?”
(As this gets shared around on social media, feel free to amuse yourself reading comments from people who haven’t bothered to read the article, but begin by blaming the other guys. Then stop a moment and think about who’s really benefiting from this strife: Big Pharma, Big Banks, Big Corporations, and Big Energy.)
So let’s all grow up. Let’s all get to work. Let’s do something that actually helps all of us.
We don’t have to be a state that can’t even provide basic infrastructure like maintained roads. Our priority problem means we pour not only money, but legislative time, into things that don’t benefit regular West Virginians. And we allow Resource Barons to slowly bleed us dry bit by bit by socializing their costs on us while they distract us trying to get us to blame each other.
We can all expect that bleeding us dry is what deadbeat Coal Baron and Governor-elect Jim Justice will be doing. Statewide, he won with a majority of people voting against him, and in this district he lost soundly. Even statewide, many of those who voted for him just thought the other guy was worse. It would be interesting to see if his favorability ratings reflect that.
Regardless, we expected these ethics issues even before Justice was elected (certainly many Democrats deluded themselves). A focus on enriching himself and rewarding his good friends is doubtless why he appointed Austin Caperton the new Secretary of the WV DEP.
Caperton is, predictably, a Coal Exec. It’s hard to imagine that he’s someone concerned with doing the job the law calls for—in fact, the press release announcing the appointment emphasized the intention to “[get] rid of needless red tape” for businesses. We know what that means.
And let’s recognize this: this isn’t new. We’ve always had a government out for industry above the needs of individuals—for coal BARONS rather than for coal MINERS.
And as a Coal Baron himself, Justice, I have little doubt, will be worse than some of our other governors. But whether better or worse, it will be self-serving, and old hat. If we benefited from our resources, our state and our citizens would be immensely prosperous. But the people who benefit are the folks at the top. I’ll explain how that happens below, but first, let’s talk about…
The West Virginia of Our Dreams
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can raise our eyes, set our sights higher.
And we should.
So… what sort of state do we want? What is the version of us that would capture our unique character, but would also make it prosperous for people willing to work hard?
What I picture is a state of gurgling trout fishing streams, clean swimming holes, and vast nature and hunting preserves. We have so many hiking, biking, riding, and cross-country skiing opportunities that, given this state’s natural beauty, we should be a top vacation destination. Plus, we can foster real opportunities that will improve WV in the long term.
Our towns could be green with trees and parks, and we could have new jobs—jobs available in more areas than just customer service or flipping burgers. What about jobs in bioplastics? Solar energy? Adventure tourism? Country sports tourism?
With a focus on industrial hemp farms—we are an ideal growing climate, after all—we could be producing raw materials for bioplastics and biofuels. We could transition into modern, clean energy production like solar and agriculture that would preserve the health and happiness of our communities, wouldn’t drive away sustainable industries like tourism, and we can do that without leaving miners or gas workers out in the cold.
Tourism is a sustainable industry, unlike fossil fuels. That industry could boom here in WV like it’s doing in Colorado. We could expand funding of state parks, and we already have best skiing and white water rafting in the mid-Atlantic. We could build hunting stands in public hunting areas, and perhaps the DNR could even provide hunting and fishing classes. We are the back 40 of the Mid-Atlantic.
If we focus on the right things, we could have beautiful small farms dotting the countryside, and numerous local farmers’ markets with thriving cottage industries: eggs, honey, microbrews, homegrown tomatoes, ramps, cannabis, jams, apple butter, arts, and crafts. There could be restaurants serving local trout, venison—and soon elk—along with other local foods.
And if you’re thinking to yourself that small businesses like that won’t make a difference to this state, then think again. Small firms account for more than 60% of new job creation. If we want to create jobs in WV, we’ll be most effective when we stop subsidies to big corporations, and use our resources instead to make sure small businesses can not only get started, but thrive.
Does this sound like the West Virginia we all love? Then that’s the dream we should pursue. Why put time and energy into something that won’t sustain us in the future, into something that will just keep us behind?
Pursuing Our Dream West Virginia
If we want to realize our Dream WV, we need to make some major changes to the way we’re doing things. We have to have sensible priorities, for one.
- Does running high-speed Internet lines to unused buildings help you in any way? … or should we invest in lines our people can access, and infrastructure that is attractive to all businesses?
- Does overspending on vastly oversized routers improve your life? … or can we focus on getting water to rural areas? would you prefer cell coverage in rural areas?
- Do we think that subsidizing wealthy Resource Barons is the best way to make us prosperous? … or should we work on expanding public hunting areas, or on overdue maintenance for our beautiful state parks?
- Does spending $30 million on greyhound racing subsidies make your life better?… or would you prefer more oversight of risks to our water supply, and protection for our property rights and property values?
- Do we think paying for auto insurance for cars the state no longer owns is the best use of our money? Perhaps it would be better to focus on training miners for jobs in sustainable energy, or converting old coal mines to new energy uses?
Truth is, mining and fracking: that’s not a job you do because you love the work, it’s a job you do because you love TO work. West Virginians like hard work; it’s a source of satisfaction and pride. Give us work to do, make sure we’re fairly compensated, and we’ll knock your socks off.
Because that part is important: fair compensation. That means the adding a few measly jobs shouldn’t give you permission to impoverish a whole community and use all our tax dollars for yourself. But fair compensation also means we help workers FIRST and THEN transition away from fossil fuels, so we don’t cause mining and frack-impacted communities even more devastation.
Here’s where we start turning things around…
Paying for our Dream WV
- Fix our priorities and eliminate waste. That means when we find ridiculousness like an inability to even keep track of how many cars we own, frankly someone needs to be fired or impeached. Eight years later we shouldn’t have the same problem. When the government is filled with cronies—read this blog post about WV cronyism from a conservative website— no one is held accountable. The point of linking to this site here is to affirm that getting rid of cronyism is an issue we should all agree on no matter what party you belong to.
- Raise corporate severance taxes to a fair level, where we eliminate direct and indirect corporate subsidies, and assure big corporations are paying their fair share of taxes. We can’t keep carrying lazy corporate execs; not everything can be balanced on our backs while we give Resource Barons big tax cuts. That’s nonsense. We need to focus on supporting small businesses, not filling the pockets of wealthy extraction execs—or our own governor—with our tax dollars.
- Make it a crime for companies to use bankruptcy to defraud workers of their pension benefits. Right now, companies can get rid of pension liabilities and then pay their executives million dollar bonuses for doing so. That is—pardon my language—that is bullshit. And that means taxpayers end up footing the bill for workers who’ve had their retirements seized by the wealthy. When we allow this, we’re essentially filling the pockets of the wealthy with tax money and retirement savings, while retired workers suffer terribly. While we can’t change bankruptcy laws at state level, we CAN make certain that executives who defraud workers of their pensions are charged with felonies for the theft. They should go to jail.
- Eliminate self-bonding for ALL Resource Barons. When an energy company goes bankrupt, that self-bonding money has evaporated. That’s money that was meant to cover reclamation and clean-up and is not there for the clean-up it was meant to cover. That means taxpayers foot the bill yet again.
- Legalize cannabis, which would not only save us money in the justice system, but would be a huge revenue stream, a boon to tourism, and would help fight the opiate epidemic. Industrial hemp could get us started in sustainable production of bioplastics and biofuels.
- Require cost-benefit analyses—especially for environmental permitting. These analyses must take into account the losses of the things we value, the impacts on our health, and the potential irreversible risks to the environment—and they must be clear about who is paying the costs and who is getting the benefits. The proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline, for example, will cost residents a billions of dollars—and make lots for utility companies. So why even consider approving that permit (unless you’re just interested, like Caperton and Justice, in eliminating that bothersome “red tape”)?
- Eliminate wage garnishment for student debt that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. Read details about the plan to prohibit wage garnishment for student loans here. At the state level, we can’t change bankruptcy law, but we can control whether students are abused with garnishment by a predatory industry or not. This would also improve our business environment, which suffers in West Virginia due to a lack of an educated workforce.
- Index executive compensation to the pay of the lowest paid workers in the company, and enact a surtax on excessive executive pay. As a company prospers, so should the workers. And this surtax is something that will not affect small businesses—small business owners with a few employees don’t typically pay themselves $2 million a year while their employees struggle on minimum. (And if they do, tax them!) Right now, workers putting in 40 hours a week can get paid a wage low enough to qualify them for public assistance. That means—again—taxpayers are subsidizing executive bank accounts. Wealthy execs should pay their fair share.
That’s a start. What are your other ideas? I want to hear them!
Because West Virginians deserve better. We have to pursue our Dream WV.