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Sadly, state saw little progress in '90s


Publication: THE CHARLESTON GAZETTE
Published: Friday, May 31, 2002
Page: P4A
Byline: Dan Radmacher

THE MORE census information that is released from the 2000 Census, the more dismal things look in West Virginia.

The 1990s were basically a wash, people. Our economy stagnated.

Despite unprecedented economic growth in the nation, West Virginia barely trudged along. Income barely kept up with inflation. Our population was flat (which actually indicated an exodus of 44 people every day since 1950, given the birth rate in the state).

Any progress in any area was minimal at best.

We can react to this news in one of several ways. We can point fingers and lay blame. Republicans will blame Democrats, who have been in charge of the Legislature for the past 70 years. Democrats will blame Republicans and former Gov. Cecil Underwood, who presided over four years of the decline.

Personally, I would blame both Democrats and Republicans - though I would have to point out that most Democrats in this state, especially legislative leaders, behave more like Republicans. In fact, one of the best things that could happen to West Virginia would be if every Republican in Democratic clothing switched parties. Then party leaders wouldn't have nearly the dictatorial control over the legislative process they have now.

But I digress. Pointing fingers will accomplish nothing and only distracts the state from making improvements.

We can keep on doing the same thing we've been doing for the last 10 years. Which is essentially what we've been doing for the last 50 years. Does anybody think it's worked?

The problem is identifying what we've been doing wrong so we can change it and start doing things better.

People have different ideas of what that is. Some say we need to be more business-friendly. Frankly, I think we've been too business-friendly. Our legislators and governors over the years have prostrated themselves before the coal industry, for instance.

What has that gotten this state? Last place in nearly every measure of economic well-being.

Imagine, for instance, what Southern West Virginia might look like if, from the very start, state regulators had mandated that coal companies actually develop land they flatten. Instead, the state has allowed companies to drive out residents with blasting, coal dust and killer coal trucks.

The government has used all sorts of economic incentives to try to lure business to the state. Mostly, all that has accomplished is to subsidize competition against existing, homegrown businesses.

Actually, that's not true. The super tax credits also helped coal companies afford the equipment they needed to throw thousands of miners off the job.

Former Gov. Arch Moore was trying to be business-friendly when he lowered workers' comp premiums by 30 percent (right before an election, as I recall). Businesses today are now paying extra to make up for the debt that act helped to create.

Underwood was trying to be business-friendly when he dropped lawsuits seeking workers' comp premiums racked up by fly-by-night coal contractors. If the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation hadn't kept those suits alive, businesses would have about $60 million more of that debt to pay.

This year, the Legislature decided to try being business-friendly by giving away $200 million to various economic development efforts.

Frankly, that money probably would have been better spent paying down the workers' comp debt or part of the $4 billion in unfunded pension liabilities that loom over the state.

We need to redefine what it means to be business-friendly. How about a consistent, nonpolitical approach to workers' comp? How about a fair and understandable tax system for business? How about fair and consistent application of laws and regulations?

And here's an idea: Why don't we think about being citizen-friendly as well? The state taxes food. It taxes people who barely make more than the minimum wage. It hits newcomers with a "privilege" tax on their cars.

Not everything can be laid at the feet of state government, though.

The people of West Virginia are partly responsible for their plight.

We don't value education enough. We elect corrupt, stupid and inept politicians. Voters in southern counties, especially, still pay too much attention and give too much power to the political factions.

There are lots of problems. Serious problems. That cannot be denied.

It's time to get serious about solutions.

Radmacher is the Gazette's editorial page editor. He can be reached at 348-5150 or by e-mail at danrad@ wvgazette.com.

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