West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee Pushing ‘West Virginia Forward’

Photo by Joselyn King West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee relaxes during a stop in Wheeling this week.

WHEELING — West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee said the best way to move West Virginia forward is to reshape the size and scope of state government — starting with a revamp of West Virginia’s tax structure, then eliminating duplicate programs and needless mandates within the state.

During a stop in Wheeling this week, Gee discussed the principles set forth in the “West Virginia Forward” study — a collaboration between WVU, the West Virginia Department of Commerce and Marshall University to identify both short-term and large-scale projects to boost West Virginia’s economy.

Gee said he and others are working with lawmakers to craft legislation focusing on tax reform and getting state government “right-sized.” He expects many of the bills will come to the forefront when the Legislature meets in January.

“My view is our state government is calibrated to support 3 million people — we have 1.8 million,” Gee said. “In other words, we have to thin it out. … We’ve never had the conversations, ‘Why do we have to do that?’ Or, ‘Why are auditors auditing auditors?’

“I say all the time at the university we have created such a bureaucracy that we spend all of our time figuring out how to de-bureaucratize. Let’s get this place simplified.”

The “West Virginia Forward” study was backed up by data collected by McKinsey and Company, a New York firm that conducted meeting sessions with stakeholders across the state this summer to determine what factors most affect West Virginia’s economic viability.

“We have structural problems in the state — too many counties and too many school districts for the number of students we have,” Gee said. “There’s a need for consolidation. We have structural problems in terms of our tax system. And we have structural problems in the thought that the world has moved past us.”

Gee suggested northern West Virginia, eastern Ohio and southwestern Pennsylvania should work together to take advantage of economic opportunities — and that Wheeling could be at the center of a regional economic power.

He said his “good friend,” Ohio Gov. John Kasich, has told him he believes “West Virginia will benefit much more from a cracker plant than will Ohio.”

“The question is how do we start creating regional partnerships?” Gee asked. “How do we get rid of these arbitrary lines called ‘state lines?’ How do we start thinking about western Pennsylvania, Ohio and northern West Virginia — Morgantown on up — as being an economic circle with great power?”

Gee said he has spoken with Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto about the city’s efforts to land an Amazon headquarters, and he believes Pittsburgh has “a very clear shot” at being successful.

“Why not have West Virginia participate with them rather than going it on our own?” Gee said. “He (Peduto) said Morgantown should be to Pittsburgh what Boulder is to Denver. We could all benefit.”

He said West Virginia is too humble, and needs to be more aggressive in promoting its resources to the world.

“We’ve fought the war on coal, and I am still an energy guy,” Gee said. “You sit right here in Wheeling, W.Va., on top of more potential energy than is in Saudi Arabia. Rather than fighting the last war, we have to figure out how to make the next war work for us. … We have a great regional opportunity to empower ourselves. We just need people to invest in the possibilities of where we are.”

Gee returned to West Virginia in 2014 for his second stint as WVU president, and he said he has noticed a change in Wheeling since then.

“Wheeling — in my three years in West Virginia — has shown the most progress in creating a sense of place and urgency,” he said. “Morgantown is the most economically vibrant city by far, but Wheeling has made a real pivot. You have young people, a young mayor and young folks in city council. There’s something going on here. … We’re going to have to make Wheeling the center of economic viability on a regional basis.”