At the recent Berkeley County Chamber of Commerce legislative wrap-up luncheon, I was surprised that Senator Craig Blair said that the legislature "didn't do anything for job creation in West Virginia." I offered a rebuttal to the Senator's argument and pointed out that two of the most important pieces of legislation this year, the Education Reform bill and the Justice Reinvestment bill were, in fact, jobs bills. For our economy to thrive and to attract new business into West Virginia, we must focus on having an educated and drug-free workforce. An educated workforce is at the core of economic development. This is why the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce made the Governor's Education Reform bill one of its top priorities.
The Education Reform bill, while not perfect, is a first step in addressing why, on a statewide basis, our extremely expensive education system is not producing the results we should expect and our children deserve. Senator Blair has a different perspective: "[o]ur children are afforded a quality education..." This is a curious assertion since our education system ranks in the bottom five in the nation. Seventy-nine percent of the state's eighth-graders weren't proficient in math in 2011, while 73 percent of fourth-graders weren't proficient in reading, according to the 2012 KIDS COUNT data book by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Senator Blair wrote recently that "[p]utting more resources into our education system is like putting the cart before the horse " Part of the point of education reform is making changes based on savings within the system. It is not to spend additional funds. The barrier to jobs in West Virginia right now is our lack of an educated workforce. And the failure to recognize that may divide us all.
At the forum, I also cited the Justice Reinvestment bill as one of the ways we can help keep our workforce drug-free. The bill helps set up drugs courts in every county and helps those with substance abuse problems get help and not just incarceration. This is a real problem because, particularly in Southern West Virginia, we do not have enough drug-free qualified workers to fill the available jobs. Senator Blair seems to agree that "all too often" the children who stay in West Virginia "can't even pass a drug test to fill those positions are available." If that is the case, then our priorities should be dealing with the drug problem alongside education. Unfortunately, the current mantra requires that every answer about jobs be focused on tax rates in West Virginia. If a tax is not the subject of the bill, then it is not a "jobs bills."
Right now, the unemployment rate in West Virginia is 6.6 percent ranking us in the top half of the country in employment and better than the national rate. But you know who has a better unemployment rate? Our neighbor Maryland, who is ranked first in education, despite the fact that it generally has higher taxes. I am not saying there is a cause and effect, and I am certainly not saying that higher taxes are desirable. However, I do dispute claims that economic development in West Virginia will only be advanced by changing the corporate tax rates. Does anyone really believe that a company wants to move into a state where the education system is ranked near the bottom with high rates of substance abuse? Education Reform and Justice Reinvestment were critical priorities for firing up the West Virginia economy this year. Both bills show a disciplined, data-driven approach to moving West Virginia forward.