Our priorities are among the four things we need to focus on to achieve good government. A good example of the wrong-headed way we go about things in this state is that in the last legislative session, an inordinate amount of time was spent on issues like the “raw milk bill.” In fact, so much time was spent there that we had to pay for a special session in order to get a budget passed.
Now, I’m talking about our priorities, not about our position on raw dairy. (For the record, while I don’t personally want to drink raw milk, I also think you should be at liberty to make your own choice to risk it or not.) The problem we should be concerned with is that the priorities of the legislative session were simply skewed. West Virginians shouldn’t be forced to pay for a special session because legislators were so busy considering raw milk that they just didn’t get around to doing the budget.
This is not sensible time management.
We can march on without immediate access to raw milk shares, but we can’t go on without a budget.
What makes this priority problem worse is that the money we spent on the special session could have been far better used for other things. In total, the special session lasted 17 days (not six, as shown in the early calculations here). At about $35K per day, the total we spent just on the special session was more than a half million dollars. We could have fixed 20,000 or so potholes with the money we wasted due to our priorities problem.
And even beyond the accounting cost of the legislative session, there is economic opportunity cost, too. Our legislative time could have been spent more lucratively. For example, decriminalizing cannabis would have saved our state $17 million a year. Legalizing it is projected to add $194 million to our bottom line. But by spending that time on raw milk, we didn’t have it to spend on cannabis policy—or anything else.
Remember: if we spend a half million for a special session that would net us nearly $200 million, lead to drops in opioid overdose deaths, fewer opioid prescriptions, plus a booming tourism industry (jobs!), that makes time spent working on cannabis not only a fiscally responsible choice, but a socially responsible choice.
And it’s not just that cannabis was a lost opportunity. Think of all the other things we could have spent time on that would have been worthwhile… and possibly unanimous. We could remove the loophole that allows rapists to sue for child custody in WV. We could require Family Law judges to have experience in family law. We could try to pass Marley’s Law.
Our government needs to prioritize spending time focusing on legislation that would provide the most return, so we can we get out of this budget hole.
In other words, adding 21 jobs to Ritchie and Doddridge with the proposed Antero frackwaste landfill—in exchange for having our hollers packed with salts, our health impacted from the industrial activity, our property values decimated, and our drinking water put at risk—is not a good deal in the long term. It’s a terrible deal. Antero has made it clear that they’ll make a ton of money… but we won’t. We’ll be paying the long term costs, and bearing all the risks. Those landfill liners only last 30 years. Some of the radioactive TENORMs have half-lives of more than 1000 years! How much of that “residual moisture” will leak out into our drinking water in a century? In two? How much salt will leech into the soil, killing the trees?
It’s like renting furniture that you can never stop paying for. That first month, $50 for a nice sofa seems like a killer deal. But after two years, you’ve paid the cost of the thing. And after five, you’re in the hole and just digging yourself deeper.
It’s not a perfect analogy, though, because at least you know what a rental is going to cost. (Also, your sofa is unlikely to kill you.) With the frack waste filled hollers, we have no idea. We don’t even know if the promised jobs are long term, if they’ll even go to anyone who lives here, or if they’ll be more than minimum wage.
We can’t keep making deals with the devil. We can’t sell our souls for short term gain. We need to invest in projects like good roads, good schools, and good internet. Infrastructure investment like that is attractive to all businesses. That means jobs! And building this infrastructure even adds jobs in the short term, too.
Sean O’Leary, Senior Policy Analyst for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, explains:
“Maintaining our roads and bridges supports businesses and provides immediate job opportunities for West Virginians, while creating lasting benefits that will make the state’s future economy stronger.”
When we don’t prioritize the right things in both short and long term, our state budget—and our people—will continue to suffer. We need to start asking: is that a priority for us, or might we use those funds, that time, better?