In West Virginia, we still value a handshake and looking someone in the eye. West Virginians keep their promises, their government, not so much.
I was fortunate enough to be part of the first class to receive the PROMISE Scholarship. At that time, Democratic Governor Bob Wise visited high schools throughout the state to greet scholarship recipients. The handshake from Governor Wise that day was a powerful one. It sent a message that the leader of our state wanted young people to know that not only did he believe in us, but that West Virginia believed in us. It influenced my decision to remain in the state and attend West Virginia University. More importantly, it made me want to stay here and make a difference in our state.
Fast-forward to 2021. West Virginia has become a departure state. Per capita, West Virginia is losing population at a higher rate than all our neighboring states. Our young people are leaving in droves. The PROMISE Scholarship is no longer a full promise but merely a partial one- and even that is under attack from a government that no longer looks at its young people as the future of our state, but rather a budget line-item awaiting the red line.
Who can blame young West Virginians for leaving? The current Republican leadership has been fixated on legislation to appease out-of-state interests over in-state residents. We continue to make national news for our embarrassments, not our accomplishments.
Meanwhile, the big plan to keep people here and attract new residents is to phase out an income tax while increasing every tax under the sun to pay for it – a plan that is not endorsed by any economist let alone a recent college graduate. West Virginia must get its priorities straight if we want people to stay in our state.
We, as state legislators, need to stop focusing on divisive issues that alienate our own people and embarrass us on a national level. We know that West Virginia is more than those embarrassments, but the stigma of our state stifles our progress. It is time for West Virginia to be forward thinking and forward acting. Finally.
Democratic leadership understands that being a forward moving state starts with an agenda centered on upward growth of our best and brightest. We understand that young people want to feel included in their communities and represented in their legislature. Our work product reflects that notion. We know that the Fairness Act is supported by the Fortune 500 companies we are looking to attract to this state, so we are confused when our current legislative priorities fail to reflect the same. We know that the adult use cannabis industry is one of the fastest growing job markets in the country, so we watch in amazement as our neighbors compete in today’s economy while we sit on the sidelines destined to be last to act. Again.
We want to keep our families together in West Virginia. We want our young people actively participating in our economy. We have introduced the Stay in the State Act, STEM Promise, and other student loan centered items to do just that. Those pieces of legislation continue to collect dust. Meanwhile, Republican leadership is taking up big government items like an unnecessary intermediate court, a roll back of water quality standards (in West Virginia!) to appease polluters, not our people, and a defunding of our public education system. This does not make us stronger. This does not make us competitive. We deserve a state where our young people want to stay. Where they want to rebuild. When that happens, we all succeed. It is time to make West Virginia the destination state it deserves to be, not the departure state government has created.
Del. Shawn Fluharty (D-Ohio) is the Minority Whip in the West Virginia House of Delegates.