Breaking Our Tradition of Poverty

We West Virginians have done so many things about state government right for many years that we are the envy of much of the rest of the nation. But that’s about to change. Through no fault of our own, we’re on the verge of keeping up (or down) with the Joneses regarding state budget crises.

Here’s the outlook, in a nutshell: By fiscal 2017, state government is expected to be bringing in $4.95 billion for its general revenue and lottery funds. But expenditures from those funds are projected at nearly $5.29 billion. That’s a gap of $340 million – a lot of money in our state.

Meanwhile, West Virginians have one of the lowest per capita income levels in the nation. “Thank God for Mississippi – or we’d be last” has become a sort of state slogan.

What to do about it all? Here are a few suggestions:

First and foremost, get the federal government off our backs.

  • The cost of the state-federal Medicaid program is expected to explode during the next few years. The upcoming budget year alone will require about $150 million more for Medicaid. If “Obamacare” remains in place, West Virginians are going to go broke taking care of low-income residents’ health care.

Obamacare needs to be repealed. Our members of the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate should make that their second priority during the coming year.

  • President Barack Obama’s war on coal is a threat to both our state budget and the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of West Virginians. About $400 million a year comes from severance taxes on coal.

More than 52,000 Mountain State residents receive their paychecks directly from coal companies or their contractors. Hundreds of thousands of other jobs – at grocery stores, service stations, even Wal Marts – rely on money spent by miners.

Demand for West Virginia coal to be used for power generation is lagging, and will grow much worse if Obama’s EPA pursues even the new rules it proposes now. The export market is not expected to continue taking as much coal as is shipped now from Mountain State mines.

Our members of Congress need to make it their top priority to stop the war on coal.

What can we do right here at home?

  • We can maximize our benefit from shale gas drilling. Here’s an idea of how much help we may get: Ohio Gov. John Kasich thinks the state may reap enough severance taxes from shale gas to provide state income tax breaks. West Virginia has more gas-producing shale formations than Ohio.

How do we maximize the benefit? By continuing on the path already started by the Legislature and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who enacted a package of reasonable new regulations for gas and oil drilling, and have approved incentives to bring gas “cracker” plants here.

  • West Virginians need to become more attractive to business and industry. There are several ways we can do that, including more lawsuit reforms and a more attractive tax environment. Perhaps some of that shale gas revenue could allow us to cut business taxes. And – dare I suggest it? – making ours a right-to-work state would help. Perceptions are everything.
  • Last but certainly not least, we need to improve public schools throughout West Virginia. A good start would be in being honest with ourselves. For decades we’ve been assured education reform is making great strides in our state, but for some reason, objective measurements of achievement still are lagging.

Doing public education the way we always have won’t cut it. We need to start looking more seriously as innovations such as a realistic merit-based pay system, higher pay for teachers in counties near states that pull our educators away with better salaries, and year-round classes. The bottom line is that for years, all we’ve been willing to try is variations on tactics and strategies that haven’t worked in the past. We can’t afford that anymore, if we ever could.

We West Virginians are rich in traditions. It’s time to keep some, but break with others, including poverty.

Myer can be reached via e-mail at myer@theintelligencer.net.