Taking Some Risks in W.Va.

West Virginians have two qualities that even some of our detractors admire:

We have a pull-ourselves-up-by-our-own-bootstraps attitude. It’s necessary. Seldom do we have any reason to look for knights in shining armor to give us a hand.

We tend to take care of our neighbors.

Now, while some of us are busy celebrating and trying to remember the words to “Happy Days Are Here Again” would be a good time to remember who we are.

You may have noticed last week that joy over the announcement China will invest nearly $84 billion in our natural gas and chemical industries was somewhat tempered. Gov. Jim Justice made it clear why when he explained most of that investment will be in the Ohio Valley.

That’s good news for those of us living in that region of the state. But we’re not the West Virginians most in need of an economic jump-start.

Just about none of the Chinese money will go to the southern coalfields counties. Matter of fact, if you glance at a map showing well drilling activity, you’ll notice the shale gas revolution has barely been noticed down there.

Meanwhile, what they did have has gone away, for the most part. Coal mine shutdowns have devastated several counties. There are some places where more families subsist on government payments than on private-sector paychecks. There are many communities in which the number of adults actually with jobs is less than the number able to work.

And even that $84 billion isn’t going to change that.

None of us should be counting our Chinese chickens before they’ve hatched, for several reasons:

∫ The money is scheduled to be spent during a 20-year period. An average of $4 billion a year is nice, but it isn’t an economic renaissance.

∫ Also worrisome is whether the Chinese will follow through. What happens in, say, a couple of years when Beijing decides to send a negative diplomatic/economic message to the United States?

∫ State government isn’t out of the woods, yet. The folks in Charleston are delighted that collections for the general revenue budget are higher than during last year. They’re lagging behind budget estimates by so little that we may not have to use midyear spending cuts to keep the budget balanced.

How depressing is it that we feel really good about not having to cut spending in the middle of the year?

We need to do better than for the state as a whole to tread water while tens of thousands of our fellow West Virginians are drowning.

We need to make structural changes in how we do things. That may mean tax reform. It certainly ought to mean making our government more efficient at all levels — and that includes public education. We need to find enough money in our own pockets to make real investments in progress.

Before we can do that, we have to get well. As a state, we’re sick. Yes, I’m referring to the drug abuse epidemic. It’s killing many of us, making many more unemployable, and costing us big bucks. One estimate I heard recently is that if we we’re spending what we are now on drugs — and that means battling the epidemic and coping with indirect costs such as lost productivity — we’d have around $600 million more to spend on progress every year.

We may be able to kill two birds with one stone. On Monday, I listened to some fascinating presentations by people at West Virginia University. One of them was on what sounds to me like cutting-edge neuroscience aimed, in effect, at making our brains reject opioids instead of craving them.

Perhaps putting a few million more into that research could pay off in healthier West Virginians — and marketable health care advances.

Sound far-fetched? Perhaps. But folks, we can’t let the $84 billion from China divert us from changing the way we do things in West Virginia. That hasn’t been working out very well for us, as you may have noticed. For us, the status quo is more dangerous than taking some risks.

Myer can be reached at: mmyer@theintelligencer.net.


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