All the Money in the World and No Place to Spend It?
Between COVID relief funds and budget surpluses, West Virginia is flush with cash, perhaps to an extent unlike any time in its history. The prudent question must be how the state will spend – or, better yet, invest – heretofore unappropriated monies to ensure that West Virginia’s 1.79 million citizens, and their progeny, get the biggest “bang for the buck.”
To be clear, what follows are mere suggestions – some more creative than others. They are birthed from long perambulations on how best to use funds to set West Virginia up for long-term success. Look for more fully fleshed-out ideas in later articles, but this should serve as a tasty amuse bouche.
5 Ways to Invest COVID Relief Funds
1. Eliminate income taxes
Which of the following states has the highest marginal income tax rate: Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Maryland, Kentucky, or West Virginia? Democrat-stronghold Pennsylvania? Nope. Surely, it must be historically-blue Maryland, right? Wrong again.
Alas, it is little ol’ redder-than-red West Virginia at 6.5 percent. Now, of course, West Virginia has not always been redder than red. However, I am willing to bet that most people assume West Virginia would have the lowest rate of that group. (Maryland comes in second at 5.75 percent.)
Perhaps the number one issue facing West Virginia is population loss and the evidence is quite clear that states with income taxes have enjoyed faster population growth than those with an income tax. Eliminating the income tax makes sense for demographic and economic reasons (that’s an argument for a later post). Now, we have such a wonderful opportunity to start that ball rolling.
2. Intra-WV relocation vouchers
This has been a pet idea of mine and is the most unique of my suggestions, but the easiest way to increase productivity is allow, or in this case, facilitate, the voluntary relocation of productive resources from limited-opportunity areas to high-opportunity areas. Allow those willing to move from West Virginia’s highest unemployment counties to areas within the state that offer greater opportunities for work and productivity. Let’s call it a relocation voucher. The money stays in West Virginia, and we incentivize the relocation of productive resources to places in which the productive capacity is more easily fulfilled. Naturally, the devil is in the details but could be a great way to overcome many structural barriers keeping people in low-opportunity areas of West Virginia. Workers win. Families win. The economy wins. West Virginia wins.
3. Long-term infrastructure upgrades
This should be obvious, so I won’t belabor the point: ensure West Virginia’s infrastructure is ready and able to serve the state for decades to come. With West Virginia’s declining population, it is becoming more difficult for local taxpayers to pay for infrastructure. We have the potential for a municipal death spiral: declining population, aging infrastructure becomes more expensive to maintain, smaller tax base to pay for aging infrastructure, average age of infrastructure continues to rise, and on and on. Between COVID relief funds and surpluses, West Virginia must strive for the highest-ROI infrastructure investments to short circuit the negative feedback loop/death spiral.
4. Beautification of major interstate exit ramps, “Welcome to” signs, etc.
As Will Rogers said, “you never get the second chance to make a first impression.” The state must do more to fight its reputational deficit for poverty, backwardness, etc. West Virginia must strive to attract new residents through strong first impressions. Perhaps the easiest way to do this is to beautify the areas in which out-of-staters frequently find themselves passing through: cities, towns, busy stretches of interstate, places of interest, and, yes, exit ramps.
For example, the dirtiness of Charleston’s overpasses has always bothered me and struck me as such an easy fix to make sure the state’s largest city has a favorable first impression on folks passing through. There are three major interstates converging under and with these overpasses with huge numbers of out-of-staters passing through each day. Luckily, that pet peeve is being addressed in the near future. But why not invest in beautified medians across the state? Why not ensure busy exit ramps are inviting and well maintained with trees, flowers, and impressive “Welcome to” signs? And, why not invest in shoring up the state’s biggest infrastructural assets such as historic districts. It’s easy and comes with a high ROI.
5. More roundabouts in high-traffic and high-growth areas
Roundabouts are effective traffic upgrades in that they reduce accidents, deaths, and are more effective at facilitating heavy traffic flows than traditional intersections. One of the most important aspects of investing in infrastructure is not simply meeting current needs but anticipating future needs. Roundabouts are an important component of meeting future needs.
Well, there you have it, folks – five quick and dirty ideas for the state to invest in its future. What am I missing?
Garrett Ballengee is the Executive Director for the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy.