Now that the legislative session has begun, here are thoughts about a few things of statewide importance that came to light recently:
Labor force participation: Speaking at this month’s Legislative Lookahead event, Commerce Secretary Ed Gaunch said one problem with West Virginia’s economy is its low work force participation rate.
“What I’m saying is the workers we have are among the best. We just need more of them,” Gaunch said.
Gaunch and other state officials had several ideas for encouraging more West Virginians to find gainful employment. Improving job training programs was one. Encouraging people who work in other states to live in West Virginia was another. A third idea was focusing more on helping employers already in the state to expand rather than spending so much time on recruiting businesses elsewhere to move here.
OK, these are worthy ideas. But ask yourself why so many West Virginians are not in the workforce when they could be. There are many reasons.
One is that West Virginia has a high percentage of people age 60 and older. These are people who have retired or who are looking to retire. Some who have retired have one or more part-time jobs, but some are just plain tired of working and don’t have to.
Also, transportation is expensive, and private transportation is a must in a rural state with relatively little access to public transportation. Third is the frequent employers’ lament that it’s difficult to find people who can pass a drug test.
Fourth, assuming some people who don’t work actually want to work, West Virginia is not exactly overflowing with high-paying jobs that can be filled by low-skilled people who live here. Fifth, and related to that, given the cost of child care, being a stay-at-home mom can be economically advantageous for some women.
Don’t blame the victim. People in the work force have many problems, many of their own making, but focusing on this one statistic isn’t attacking the real problem.
Business taxes: If it’s January, someone insists that West Virginia’s tax system is not competitive with its neighbors. In the late 1990s, then-Gov. Cecil Underwood commissioned a study of the state’s tax system that recommended changes. The report was promptly shelved and forgotten.
Since then, there have been numerous attempts at tinkering with business taxes, apparently with little success.
Can we put this question aside for a year and revisit it after the November election? State government has a long list of social needs it has failed to address adequately, from the foster care system to social worker staffing to drug treatment to … the list goes on and on.
This would be a good year to focus on them instead of the perennial efforts that nibble at problems instead of attacking them head-on.
Food pantries: This is not a legislative issue per se, or is it?
According to a recent article in The Charleston Gazette-Mail, the Mountaineer Food Bank in Gassaway is overstocked with food because it cannot get its inventory to communities that need it. Isolated and rural food banks don’t have the money or the staffing to meet the needs of hungry West Virginians. They don’t own a refrigerated truck (cost: $50,000 or more) or access to one.
“There are currently no state dollars allocated to the more than 500 food relief agencies around West Virginia that are lifelines for 300,000 people a month,” the article said.
Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., is sponsoring legislation at the federal level to help these food banks. If the Legislature can find it in its heart to prop up failing coal operations and power plants with tax breaks, can it likewise find a few dollars to help these food banks get food to people who need it?