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MAP TO PROSPERITY: What should the role of state government be?

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    Map to Prosperity

    Thursday, January 2 2014 11:59 AM EST2014-01-02 16:59:08 GMT
    "Map to Prosperity" is a long-term project of The State Journal that will deeply examine government and business in West Virginia — both the perceptions and the reality.
    "Map to Prosperity" is a long-term project of The State Journal that will deeply examine government and business in West Virginia — both the perceptions and the reality.

Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, a liberal think tank, responded to the question, "What do you think the role of state government should be?"

"Our public investments in schools, health care, transportation, innovation and public safety are not only essential to our quality of life, but they provide the foundation for a strong economy," he replied. "Public investments are critical to a broadly shared prosperity.

"Our role as public servants is to plant the seeds of prosperity so we can build a strong economy. Effective public policy creates good-paying jobs that will make our state a better place to live, work, conduct business and raise a family.

"This means developing a talented and sufficient workforce," he said. "It means investing in innovation so entrepreneurs can create businesses. It means building the middle class so we have enough people and companies that want to buy things. And enough investments that we continue to maintain a trustworthy government and legal system with strong accountability and transparency, reliable infrastructure, schools and hospitals, and that we have enough capital for financial investment."

Others view state government's role as much more limited. One debate focuses on state efforts to stimulate economic development. West Virginia actively recruits businesses and can offer potential employers free land, financing, tax breaks and free workforce training.

"The state should always remember they are here to support business," said John Skidmore, who developed many of the businesses off of the Interstate 79 Flatwoods Exit. "So many times well-intentioned programs end up wasting our tax dollars. I'm a firm believer in the old adage that if the service or product is listed in the phone book, the government shouldn't be in that business.

"In general, private/public partnerships don't operate as efficiently as those in the private sector," he said, referring to Stonewall Resort, which has bonds, issued via the state, that have been in default since 2006. "That is just one example I can think of that has personally affected our tax-paying, self-funded business directly.

"A better option would have been to find a way to lease those state park lands out long-term to private developers at a reasonable rate and let them fund the project.

"If a major expert in the industry doesn't think the property will cash flow and passes on the project, the state should think long and hard before investing the taxpayers' money in a project where they have little experience. However, many of these types of projects become political and have very little oversight so they proceed without a lot of questions regarding the financials behind them."

"The government should not be in the business of picking winners and losers in any industry," Skidmore said. "Let the market decide. The government's role needs to be only to set fair and consistent policy and allow the private sector to have rules they can count on long term to operate and grow their business."

A former leader in state government explained it simply.

"The state picks winners and losers," this person said. "Look at Williamstown: You've got Fenton Glass, which paid every tax and was there for generations and is now a shadow of its former self. Just down the road you've got Hino Motors, which got every tax break the state could muster."