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Jim Rorrer: Infrastructure program key to boosting WV

February 10, 2019

“West Virginia Rising” was the title of an economic recovery summit held at Marshall University in January 2017. While the main focus of the event was on recovering from the disastrous floods in the eastern part of our state in 2016, my presentation dealt with much broader initiatives to address economic growth across the entire state.

Today, we are even more in need of this comprehensive plan. Research continues to confirm that West Virginia hovers at or near the bottom of rankings that measure workforce participation rates (less than half), percentage of college graduates in the workforce (20 percent) and, perhaps most disturbing, a recent report showing that 20 percent of our young adults, ages 18-24, are completely disconnected from jobs, schools and homes. The number is probably much higher if those who are under-employed or off the grid entirely could be counted. Additionally, a recent study by WalletHub revealed that West Virginia is 49th in a ranking of “Most Educated States” and 50th in “Educational Attainment” ranking.

Meager state revenues have left our state at risk in nearly every category imaginable. Drug abuse is at crisis levels, creating despair and a loss of hope. High school graduation rates are below expectations and scholastic achievement is already at rock bottom in many schools.

West Virginia’s infrastructure (water, sewer, roads, bridges, flood control, broadband, etc.) is in a state of disrepair and even crisis in many areas. The state’s unemployment, under-employment and workforce participation rates are among the worst in the nation and job skills are in decline. West Virginia is in need of an immediate, large scale and comprehensive solution to address these problems.

Infrastructure initiative: The seeds of opportunity, however, lie within the crisis. The pathway out of our chronic dilemma and into prosperity must include:

• Acknowledgment by our leadership (political, corporate, academic and citizen) that repair and replacement of antiquated and inadequate infrastructure is West Virginia’s optimal, and perhaps only, near-term, large-scale solution to the problems noted previously.

• Creation of a cabinet-level Department of Infrastructure, moving the Department of Transportation and all other infrastructure-related activities into this new state-level division.

• Establishment of a WV Infrastructure Bank to facilitate funding.

• Encouraging West Virginia’s U.S. congressional representatives to simultaneously work for the creation of a National Infrastructure Bank to facilitate large scale funding, planning, implementation and coordination with state-level efforts (the Brookings Institution recently published a blueprint for how a National Infrastructure Bank would work).

• Determining the scope and scale of statewide infrastructure needs (think on the scale of the Works Progress Administration).

• And identifying and prioritizing projects with which to launch the initiative.

Education reform: In conjunction with the infrastructure initiative, acknowledge that 70 percent or more of West Virginia high school students won’t enter and/or complete a college education program.

Acknowledge that off-campus career technical (CTE) facilities and their related costs, stigma and transportation challenges are a deterrent to attendance by many high school students.

Collaborate with state and county leadership to put career technical education (aka trade schools as known by us older folks) programs physically back into the state’s high schools. The former Huntington East High School had one of the most successful programs in the state, so the template and justification already exist. Use existing CTE facilities for advanced certification and adult training.

Tax reform: Collaborate with legislative leadership to show the benefits and fairness of user-type taxes to fund bold, innovative initiatives that will create employment opportunities across the state.

Pass legislation to raise revenues that would be dedicated to the jobs and education initiatives by adding at least a 20 cents per gallon permanent tax on gas and diesel consumption and adding user fees to all utility bills based on consumption.

Dramatically reduce governmental red tape for approval of infrastructure projects (see Common Good’s “2 Years Not 10 Years” proposals).

Advocacy: Roll out a coordinated, statewide campaign describing this comprehensive initiative with its benefits and costs. Present the initiative as a strategic, comprehensive plan that requires action on all the components to achieve optimal results.

Enlist the support and advocacy of key leaders and stakeholders from education, both political parties at the local, state, and federal levels, industry, Marshall University and West Virginia University, faith-based and non-profit communities and the public.

In summary, only an infrastructure program on a massive scale can employ enough workers at every skill level from shovel experts to welders, equipment operators, accountants, architects and engineers to truly make a difference. Putting career technical training and certification programs physically back into high schools can create a pathway to job opportunities and provide hope for the 70 percent-plus of high school graduates who won’t get a college education. Jobs, job skills and, most importantly, hopefulness provide the best deterrents to drug addiction.

Finally, regarding the revenues needed, the citizens and politicians of our state need to acknowledge that using the roads, drinking the water, taking a shower and flushing the toilet have to be paid for by the user. If you use it, you have to pay for it. This is the simple, irrefutable justification for increased user-based taxes and fees.

And finally, don’t think, believe or say this can’t be done!

Jim Rorrer, a Huntington resident, is a retired investment consultant and a member of several economic development, educational and non-profit boards.

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