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Rethinking How W.Va. Emerges From COVID

Gov. Jim Justice already has earned a starring role in the history books for the way in which he has led West Virginians through what for many is the toughest time of their lives. Though, as Justice points out, every one of the more than 560 Mountain State lives lost to COVID-19 is precious, we have managed thus far to escape the level of tragedy visited upon most other states.

What next? Can it be time for us to turn the lemons of decades into lemonade in West Virginia?

There’s reason to believe Justice may be thinking in such terms. And why not?

For one thing, the governor already has speculated that the time may be ripe for dramatic action aimed at modernizing our economy. He has suggested eliminating the state income tax may be a good first move in that direction.

Wow. The income tax brings in more than $2.1 billion a year, nearly half the state’s general revenue budget. Is it possible to scrap the tax?

Only as part of a comprehensive revenue reform package, obviously.

But do Justice and legislators have the will and skill to manage that? Recognizing that killing the income tax may mean increasing some other sources of revenue, can they persuade the special interests — not to mention the rest of us ­– to do it?

Maybe. We talk a lot about the “new normal.” Consider the possibility that there’s a new normal for the governor and he already has embraced it.

Not to minimize the apolitical thoughtfulness of advisers who surrounded Justice prior to last March, but he spends his days now listening to a totally different kind of people. West Virginia University’s Dr. Clay Marsh is a good example.

When COVID hit, Justice was quick to summon Marsh and other scientists to his side — and to pay attention to what they had to say. As a result, state government’s defense against the virus has been more effective than efforts by many other states.

Justice’s COVID team consists of results-oriented, apolitical intellectuals. He’s seen how effective that kind of thinking can be. Why not turn that type of mindset toward remaking — even re-imagining — West Virginia state government and our economy?

Now, I wouldn’t want to put the governor in an uncomfortable place, so I hasten to note the following is my thought, not necessarily his: What if results-oriented intellectualism was turned loose on public education?

What if we had the will to give up a few billion dollars in state revenue in order to transform the economy and, in the long run, bring in more while improving West Virginians’ lives — and making better ones for our children and grandchildren more than just dreams?

Politically, there may never be a better time. Republicans gained seats in both the state Senate and House of Delegates. That has meaning deeper than mere transient political power. It means many Mountain State voters are willing to think differently than we did for 80 or so years.

Justice himself probably is among the most popular governors in the nation, because of how he handled COVID. He’s viewed as more than a politician with a knack for down-home language. He’s seen as a real leader.

Next year may be time for the governor to add to his laurels in the history books. We’ll see soon what his vision is and whether lawmakers are willing to follow him.

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

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