Where state government has fallen short - WOWK 13 Charleston, Huntington WV News, Weather, Sports

MAP TO PROSPERITY: Where state government has fallen short

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Brooks McCabe Brooks McCabe
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Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, is managing member and broker of West Virginia Commercial LLC. He has been involved in commercial and investment real estate for more than 30 years, and he also is general partner of McCabe Land Company LP. He has served in the West Virginia Senate since 1998, and is a special project consultant to The State Journal.

West Virginia's state government has much to be proud of, but has fallen short in a number of areas that could determine its success in the future. There is little doubt West Virginia's state government is in a time of transition, which ultimately will result in it becoming smaller and leaner.  

If for no other reason, the money is not there and the budget must be balanced. This will force the state to look at areas where it has underperformed or misplaced its objectives, all the while thinking it has done the best it can. The fact of the matter is that West Virginia has fallen short in a number of areas. With multi-year budget cuts facing the state, now is a time to right-size state government to meet the needs of the future and not prolong the programs of the past. 

Lower labor force participation

To oversimplify the case before us, West Virginia has let its labor force participation rate slip to 53.4 percent, the lowest in nation. The national rate is 63 percent. West Virginia also has one of the lowest average wages in the country. These outcome measures are the result of a combination of demographics and inadequate public policy. The task is to focus on policy and programs while not using our demographics as an excuse for poor performance.

Matthew Watts, a pastor in the economically challenged west side of Charleston, defines a number of factors which affect the state's labor participation rate, a major problem in his community. He believes the poor health of the workforce, educated workers leaving the state, the high school dropout rate, low skill level of high school graduates, low college attendance and graduation rates, inadequate juvenile justice and adult criminal justice systems, the higher standards of an all-volunteer armed forces and inadequate workforce training programs all leave many of our youth without proper job skills and out of the workforce. It is not as if West Virginia has not been trying to improve the labor participation rate. But rather, each part of the problem and its corresponding solutions are essentially operating within independent silos. Couple this with West Virginia's aging workforce and the problem becomes more severe and affects all parts of the state's economy. West Virginia's workforce participation rate is a crisis unto itself and West Virginia will not prosper until it is substantially improved. 

Weirton Steel replaced by Walmart

West Virginia is near the bottom nationally with its average family income and the corresponding average personal income. This should be no surprise with the dramatic loss of manufacturing jobs and a corresponding replacement of lower paying service jobs.  

A simple illustration is how Weirton Steel has been displaced by Walmart as the state's largest employer. It is not that service jobs are unimportant, but if the economy is to grow and prosper, it needs the high-paying, high-skilled jobs that manufacturing and high tech industries provide. West Virginia has underperformed in this area in spite of its best intentions.

Jobs, jobs, jobs — that is the call to action. But not just any job; it is the high-skill, high-paying jobs that are needed. West Virginia has fallen short in its effort to be aggressive in the job development arena. An increased labor participation rate of highly trained workers is only half the equation for success. The other half is high quality jobs. West Virginia needs an improved tax policy that encourages new industry to locate within its boundaries. It needs a regulatory and administrative structure that encourages responsible industries to choose West Virginia over competing states. It needs a legal and regulatory system that is viewed as business friendly, while at the same time being responsible stewards of the environment. It needs a public health system that effectively addresses drugs in the home and work place while also paying close attention to the education of our communities about the relationship of lifestyle and personal health as industry will always be hesitant to locate into areas that do not have healthy communities. 

A cooperative energy balance

West Virginia needs to become a national leader in balancing natural resource extraction with the environment, thereby assuring clean air and clean water for future generations. It needs to work with industry and environmental groups in a cooperative manner, not in a combative manner with the "winner-take-all" mentality. It needs to recognize that its future is as an energy state in the 21st Century and not be bound by practices used in previous decades. West Virginia needs to find a way to become a leader in the commercialization of emerging technologies, particularly those relating to coal, natural gas and chemicals. It must find a way to help new industry locate in the state by having nationally recognized research centers supporting these commercialization efforts. Imaging technologies and biometrics also must be part of the equation to further diversify the economy and provide a broad spectrum of high-skill and high-paying jobs. 

Workforce participation coupled with high-paying, skilled jobs driving the state gross domestic product higher is what it is all about. West Virginia's future depends upon it. The majority of the state's problems can be mitigated by improving these two outcome measures. It is not that the state has been doing the wrong thing. It has not been addressing the key issues in a comprehensive, coordinated manner and its focus has been continually diverted by the "crisis of the month." What is needed is an unwavering commitment to improving workforce participation and raising the average income of our residents so that West Virginia is in the middle of the pack nationally. If the state can reach these goals, West Virginia will be on its way to an economic resurgence never seen before in its history. 

While some may believe it is counter intuitive, there is no better time to tackle these issues than when the budget is tight. Opportunity is greatest in time of crisis and the budget, in reality, is the state's plan for going forward. The budget must be recast, not just balanced, if West Virginia is to obtain its full potential. Comprehensively addressing workforce participation and average personal and family income will get the state across the finish line.