While Gov. Jim Justice has been boasting about how well the state’s economy is doing under his leadership, John Deskins, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at West Virginia University, was filling statistical buckets of ice water to cool the political hyperbole.
It did not help the governor’s happy narrative when Pinnacle Mine officials announced this past week that it was shutting down operations in Wyoming County and laying off hundreds of workers as a result. And then, strike the ominous chord on the organ, ABB Manufacturing said it would be closing its facility in Greenbrier County where 130 workers are employed.
In a Friday afternoon press release that had the calming effect of a cattle prod, Justice tried to reassure one and all. He said he was “directly involved” with efforts to keep the mine open, and was urging ABB officials to reconsider.
“It’s not over, it’s surely not over until it’s over and we’re not going to stop trying until there’s absolutely no other recourse,” said the governor.
Feeling confident, everyone? Anyone?
In a slog of a recovery from the 2007 Great Recession, state revenues this year — finally — have shown some resilience. The state ended the 2018 fiscal year on June 30 with a $36 million surplus, a trend that has followed in each of the three months since.
Something good was afoot, clearly, via coal exports to foreign countries. And, yes, we saw the uptick in tourism dollars. We are hopeful, but we also know what we see out the window. The rainbows that follow economic thunderstorms are difficult to spot in a mountainous landscape of persistent and grinding financial struggle, of downtown business districts folding to a Walmart, and Walmarts giving way to Dollar Generals. So, when we see the governor, Hawaiian leis strung around his neck, celebrating revenue totals by summoning the press and sitting in front of a banner saying, “Way to go West Virginia,” we cringe at the props, the staging, the hubris.
Our governor celebrates a number while, out here, some folks are concerned about the next meal or filling a prescription bottle of pain medication.
Here in the coalfields, we know the next hard turn is bound to come because our state’s economy is overly dependent on extraction industries. This is not our first rodeo.
And, so, Pinnacle.
With the mine closure, Wyoming County faces the loss of about $1.37 million in machinery, equipment and inventory taxes. The county’s schools would take the biggest hit with a loss of just over $1 million, according to Mike Cook, county assessor. The county commission would lose about $326,000 in taxes and another $200,000 per year in coal severance tax.
The three municipalities of Mullens, Oceana and Pineville would each lose about $21,000.
And the economic damage reaches beyond Wyoming County. The mine employs just over 400 people, but only about half of those workers live in Wyoming County. Many drive to work from Raleigh, Mercer and McDowell counties.
Deskins understands the vulnerabilities of living in coal country because he not only assembles the data for his annual report and five-year economic projection, he also studies the numbers.
Deskins knows that the recent turnaround has been driven by expanding coal production and renewed growth in natural gas production. He also knows that the state owns a 53 percent workforce participation rate — the lowest of any state in the nation.
He also knows that our population is aging, that too many young folks have moved out of state and that — here’s the killer — total public assistance to West Virginia in 2015 amounted to more than 27 percent of personal income.
Yes, social welfare is a significant economic driver in our state.
And, as his annual report states, Deskins knows this, too: The coal industry “remains subject to considerable downside risk due to lingering uncertainty related to coal use by domestic power plants and future global demand for thermal and met coal.”
Feeling confident? Anyone?
Please, Gov. Justice. Stop the show, put down the props and get to work. As our state’s CEO, you need a long-term plan, not an afternoon program to remind us all just how fortunate we are that you came along.
— The Register-Herald