Last week was further proof that state politicians are missing the point entirely when they pose the question, “What can we do to convince people to move to West Virginia?”
After release of preliminary 2020 U.S. Census results, showing a nation-worst exodus of 3.2% of the state’s population, the equivalent of having the cities of Charleston and South Charleston instantly vaporized, the question should be, “What can we do to keep West Virginians from leaving in droves?”
West Virginia is one of only three states to lose population in the past decade, and the others — Illinois and Mississippi — had comparatively negligible losses of 0.1 and 0.2%, respectively.
Losing 3.2% of the state population in a decade isn’t just a problem, it’s a death spiral.
Something is seriously wrong in West Virginia, and it won’t be corrected by giving tax breaks to wealthy folks with six-, seven- or eight-figure incomes so they can buy $2.5 million second homes at the Greenbrier Sporting Club.
What the Census figures make painfully clear is that all the recent efforts intended to bring people and businesses to the state — massive bipartisan corporate tax cuts in the 2000s, followed by right-to-work, tort reform and repeal of prevailing wage — have failed completely and utterly, doing nothing to grow or improve the state.
Arguably, the past six years of Republican control of state government has accelerated the departure rate, with enactment of anti-worker, anti-education, anti-revitalization policies.
Not surprisingly, the result is that people are expressing their displeasure by voting with their feet, leaving the state in droves.
Despite all the supposed pro-business measures, our economy is a mess, as illustrated by a Pew Charitable Trusts report this week tracking year-by-year changes in personal income.
In the first five years of Republican control of the Legislature (throwing out 2020, which is skewed by a massive infusion of federal pandemic stimulus dollars), personal income grew by an average of 1.54% a year, roughly half the U.S. average growth of 2.7% during that time.
That includes anemic state growth of 0.25% in 2019.
The Pew data go back to 2007, and it’s interesting that personal income growth under GOP leadership hasn’t fared notably better than growth under the Democrats, which averaged 1.37% annually from 2007 to 2014 — and those numbers include the Great Recession, which was no fault of state legislators.
One could argue the slow personal income growth rates shows GOP policy is accomplishing exactly what Republicans intended, with right-to-work, repeal of prevailing wage and other anti-worker measures depressing wages for working West Virginians and transferring those dollars to the well-lined pockets of business owners and investors.
The population collapse didn’t begin with GOP control of the state, and the primary reason for the exodus is the lack of good jobs here, as coal, chemicals, steel and manufacturing have shrunk to mere shadows of themselves.
However, as we saw in the past legislative session, state leadership remains woefully inadequate in all attempts to keep the state’s population from collapsing.
An effort to revitalize coalfields communities failed because too many legislators still cling to the delusion that coal is coming back. Legislators passed a broadband bill that looks all well and good on paper but provided no funding for broadband expansion.
Meanwhile, the state and world saw an angry, intolerant, vindictive, bigoted Legislature that spent much of the session settling scores against labor, teachers, municipalities and the press and marginalizing those who don’t happen to be conservative white Christian heterosexuals.
As MSNBC’s Stephanie Ruhle masterfully demonstrated in a devastating interview Friday with Gov. Jim Justice, much time and energy was expended this session to enact legislation addressing a problem with transgender athletes that Justice admitted does not exist, while West Virginia remains at or near the bottom in national rankings for education, health care, the economy and infrastructure.
West Virginia is, not unexpectedly, a vortex of vaccine hesitancy, given that we have an ideal mix of those most likely to tell pollsters they definitely will not get vaccinated: Republicans, evangelical Christians, residents of rural areas and those with high school educations or less.
As state vaccination rates plummeted, Justice could see that his narrative about West Virginia being a national leader in getting people vaccinated and being the envy of the country was going down the drain, and, naturally, the notoriously thin-skinned governor took it as a personal affront.
He gave his initiative to incentivize the estimated 588,000 West Virginians who are either reluctant or refusing to get vaccinated the title of “Beat 588 Bad,” the implication being that those who dare to defy his orders need to be beaten and beaten badly.
After scoffing during his April 19 briefing about the idea of offering incentives to encourage the state’s vaccine hesitant to get shots — “Should we be paying people to get vaccinated? Really? Should you pay someone in order to try to save their life?” — Justice on Monday unveiled his plan to give 16- to 35-year-olds incentive to be vaccinated, and naturally, it was the lamest, most archaic option imaginable.
I suspect the first reaction of those in the target group to Justice’s announcement was, “What’s a savings bond?”
When I first posed the question about offering vaccination incentives, I was thinking more along the lines of free nights at State Park lodges, tickets to Mountaineer sporting events, perhaps gift certificates to bars and restaurants that have struggled during the pandemic.
Instead of such sensible incentives, Justice went full Boss Hogg and decided the best way to get younger West Virginians vaccinated was to resort to old-fashioned bribery, and I do mean old-fashioned.
Savings bonds? For my generation, savings bonds are what you got as graduation presents from grandparents who lived too far away to actually attend graduation ceremonies.
If you’re holding out on getting vaccinated because you think the shot will rearrange your DNA, or will allow Bill Gates to track your every move, or because you’re at an age where you think you’re indestructible, the promise of getting $100 twenty years from now doesn’t seem all that enticing.
Justice initially suggested the savings bond offer would appeal to young people’s sense of patriotism, and that $100 cash payments would “get gone just like that” — not to mention costing the state twice as much as $100 savings bonds, a concept Justice did not seem to grasp at his briefing.
He also does not seem to grasp that today’s savings bonds are electronic, not a printed certificate that one can hold like an award. The governor conceded Wednesday that he had not really thought through the specifics of the process of awarding tens of thousands of savings bonds, confessing, “We may have to say, nope, we just can’t do that. We’re just going to send you a $100 check.”
Just another example of how out of touch Justice is with the electorate, and how he foists plans without vetting them. Assuredly, his scheme will fall far short of his goal of getting 70% of the roughly 380,000 unvaccinated West Virginians in that age group to get their shots.
Finally, during my tenure at the Gazette, and now Gazette-Mail, one of the most dramatic changes I’ve observed has been in technology.
When I started, there were no laptop computers, no cellphones and no internet. An out-of-town daily assignment meant literally calling in the story, dictating it to an unlucky soul on the other end of the landline in the newsroom.
When I first got to the statehouse, the closest thing we had to technology were the squawk boxes in the pressroom that permitted (and still do) listening to House and Senate floor sessions.
No legislative website, no calling up text of bills on your computer or cellphone. If you wanted a bill, you went to the Journal Room and requested a printed copy. On press row in House and Senate chambers were giant spiral binders called bill books containing print copies of all bills on third and second reading agendas.
Covering legislative committee meetings meant physically being present in undersized committee rooms (so sized because committee meetings were not open to the public when the Capitol was built) and floor sessions essentially required the same, with seating limited to one representative of each media outlet.
For the Gazette, that effectively meant that two people covered legislative sessions. We might reach out to colleagues on particular beats to help bring us up to speed on certain bills, but circumstances precluded other reporters from covering the session on a regular basis.
Now, with the miracle of modern technology, anyone with a computer or smartphone can follow legislative sessions from anywhere in the world.
I have to admit, I slacked off more than usual this session, but Lacie Pierson, Ryan Quinn, Mike Tony and Joe Severino, in Justice’s words, pulled the rope together and took up the slack marvelously.
Technology made that possible, particularly this session when legislative leadership used the pandemic as an excuse to shut out public access to the proceedings to a far greater degree than necessary.
That being said, it’s entirely unacceptable for the House of Delegates to have audio only streaming of its committee meetings.
It is imperative that, before next regular session, the House take some of its surplus cash and upgrade its technology to provide quality video coverage of its committee meetings. That’s particularly true since I suspect that lessons learned from the pandemic will make people less likely in future legislative sessions to want to cram themselves into the Capitol during the height of flu season.
Otherwise, all the talk of transparency and open government rings hollow. Speaker Roger Hanshaw, get it done.