Garrett Ballengee: A Cure for What Ails West Virginia
Originally appeared in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.
Where should I educate my child? Where should I work? Where can my family enjoy the most opportunities to succeed?
Every day, millions of people ask themselves these questions. And every day, fewer of them are seeing West Virginia as the answer.
What can be done to stem the tide? The Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy offers a surprising solution: freedom. Real freedom, the freedom to choose and to take a path without interference, so long as our actions do not harm others.
The Cardinal Institute believes that there are three key areas in which freedom can improve West Virginia’s economic situation and therefore the lives of the people of this great state: education, labor and taxation.
Most people understand that competition begets choice. But choice — or rather the freedom to choose — is what drives competition. Makers of cellphones, cars and chocolate know we have a choice, and they respond by competing to offer us better products at cheaper prices.
Choice works, and yet West Virginia parents are denied the freedom to choose when it comes to their children’s education. No choice means no competition to drive improvement and innovation.
Across the United States, families are benefiting from a revolution in school choice — a revolution that has so far largely passed West Virginia by. Take education savings accounts (ESA).
ESA programs give parents control over how their children’s education dollars are spent. Every year, participating parents receive a debit card preloaded with money they can spend on private tutoring, private school tuition, educational therapy and other qualifying educational expenses for their children. Any excess money can be saved and put toward their children’s college tuition.
Arizona introduced the nation’s first ESA program in 2011 and four other states have since followed suit. West Virginia, unfortunately, is not among them.
Freedom of choice is also important in the labor market. “Right-to-Work” and the so-called prevailing wage have, rightfully, garnered much attention in the Mountain State, but there is another reform we need if we are to have true labor freedom in West Virginia: union recertification.
The logic behind union recertification is simple: The right to vote for one’s representatives is deeply ingrained in the American way of life, so people should get to vote for or against unionization in their workplace.
But that just isn’t the case in West Virginia. In fact, according to James Sherk of The Heritage Foundation, fewer than 10 percent of private sector union members had the opportunity to vote on the authorization of their union. If the union is serving their members to a satisfactory level, the union will be reauthorized; if not, it won’t be.
West Virginia’s tax policy could also use an infusion of freedom. At its core, taxation is coercive — if you don’t pay your taxes, you go to jail. In recognition of this reality, it is incumbent on our elected officials to spend taxpayers’ money responsibly, and to construct the least freedom-eroding tax policy possible.
The budget shortfall has featured prominently in the pages of this newspaper and elsewhere and should lead West Virginians to ask ourselves how much government we want and how much we are willing to pay for it?
We may well decide that West Virginia’s budget was too big to begin with. From there, we will have to make some tough decisions about what is essential and appropriate for our government to do and what is better left to the private sector and civil society.
Regardless of what we choose, our tax policy should be built in line with the principles of simplicity, transparency and neutrality (in the sense of not favoring any one group over another). It should also be broad-based with low rates. The broad base allows tax revenue to be relatively more stable and low rates mean more money in the pockets of West Virginians. Fixing our tax policy — and maximizing freedom in education and labor — will mean much work for West Virginia, but we can do it.
The Cardinal Institute looks forward to serving as a resource for all West Virginians and as an advocate for freedom as a cure to what ails us in all areas of public policy.
Garrett Ballengee is executive director of the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy.