With a flurry of bill signings late last month, Gov. Jim Justice put a cap on Republican-controlled legislative efforts to shape policy for the betterment of constituents and the state’s welfare in 2018. You are forgiven but not alone if you were not overly impressed with their efforts as our state struggles to identify and fund key fixes to an economy that remains largely dependent on extraction industries.
Was broadband fixed for the benefit of Main Street businesses? Was the opioid drug crisis addressed in any ambitious manner? Did the state find monies to promote itself for the sake of tourism? Did legislators drop tuition towards technical training at our community colleges? Just how did these legislators address “human capital” and a workforce participation rate that is under water?
A resounding negative on all of the above, of course, but, hey, they did manage to take Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits away from some of those who live within our most vulnerable populations.
Creative policy thinkers? Not these folks.
Politicos, lobbyists and hangers-on who live inside the Capitol bubble and are quick to promote self over substance will point to any one of a number of new laws or actions as their crowning achievement this year. Regardless, the session’s most important and momentous action – the 5 percent pay raise for all state employees – is what branded this session, and it came not from some politically driven legislative committee closed to honest debate, but from a noisy grassroots protest grounded in the state’s past – from labor and laborers who work on the front lines.
And therein lies the lesson to the rest of us who do not spend our days trying to figure out how to game the system for political and career self-interests. If West Virginians want to fix what ails the state, they are going to have to do it without the help of this particular club of politicians.
It’s not as though citizens have not had to take the lead in our recent past. As the Republican-controlled Legislature balks at the very mention of creating “new revenue” via taxes, just last fall citizens of the state voted overwhelming for increased vehicle registration fees – taxes by any other name – to fund Gov. Justice’s $1.6 billion roads program. Citizens saw the benefits of the gamble: Improved infrastructure, thousands of good-paying jobs and additional payroll taxes to boost lackluster state revenues. Was that worth the risk of floating a billion-dollar bond? The citizens said, yes, yes it was.
The teacher pay raise – long overdue – came from out here in the real world as well, from classrooms, K-12, where teachers have been underpaid, education undervalued and classrooms underfunded for years.
Inside the bubble? Legislators, trying their level best to ignore the tumult in the Capitol corridors and balconies, were offering pay raises that you would have needed a divining rod to find.
Well, guess who won at the end of the day?
Those who spoke up, those who insisted their elected representatives attend to their business, those who needed a reason to stay and teach in a state they love and call home.
Mountaineers need willing partners in Charleston, and until they elect those who have their interests in mind, who couldn’t care less about political identity and party dogma, who can courageously address the critical issues that stand as roadblocks to recovery, then progress and prosperity will always be delayed if not denied.
And that’s a shame for the people of a state such as ours.