CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice advocated for optimism today.
The governor took the lead on a press conference during which he was flanked by Republican senators and delegates, along with one Democrat, Senator Stephen Baldwin of Greenbrier County.
The governor touted the statewide passage of a road bond measure and today’s special legislative session to approve the sale of the bonds. He also cited last month’s announcement of a memorandum of understanding with China Energy, potentially worth billions of dollars in economic investment over two decades.
And the governor pointed to a recent article by a company called GoBankingRates, a personal finance website, that spotlighted West Virginia’s economic growth. The article cited gross domestic product and personal income growth rates, as well as decreases in jobless rates.
“Today, we hear good stuff about us,” Justice said. “We said, we’re going to move the state. We’re going to move the needle, and it’s not going to take forever. It’s amazing what’s going on.”
The GoBanking Rates article is based on growth. “West Virginia ranks as No. 1 most improving because it had so much ground to make up,” its authors wrote.
“Its unemployment rate in March 2016 was 6.2 percent, one of the highest in the country. A year later the unemployment rate was 4.9 percent — still higher than 37 other states, but the most improved.”
A recent report that the governor did not bring up, a Forbes ranking of “Best States for Business,” ranked West Virginia last.
The Forbes article ranked West Virginia poorly on a variety of factors such as the worst population growth rate in the United States and the lowest college attainment rate in the country.
The Forbes article ranked West Virginia at or near the bottom in the categories of labor supply, regulatory environment, economic climate, growth prospects and quality of life.
Asked about the Forbes article compared to the GoBankingRates article that was passed out to those who attended the press conference, Justice acknowledged there is still room for improvement.
“It would be completely foolish for any of us to think the work’s done,” he said. “The work is just starting. It is so refreshing to see that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and there’s things genuinely beginning to happen to propel West Virginia in a positive way down the road.
“It is exciting to think when you come to bat you may be able to hit the ball.”
In an interview following Justice’s remarks, Senate President Mitch Carmichael said he was aware of the criticisms in the Forbes article. He agreed with Justice that West Virginia is on a hot streak but said the state has room to improve.
“We are on a hot streak; we’re on a trajectory of growth,” said Carmichael, R-Jackson. “There is a sense of optimism, a sense of hope and a recognition of the willingness to do the things that have been difficult to do in the past.
“The things we’ve done the past three years have put us on this path. Now we need to finish the job.”
During the press conference, Justice was asked for more specifics about the China Energy investment. The agreement was announced in early November as an $83 billion investment over 20 years, focusing on West Virginia natural gas.
Few details have been released about the specifics of the development, the timetable or the state’s role.
On Monday, Justice didn’t provide a lot more and declined again to say when the state might release details of the memorandum of understanding. But he did say the interest from China is real and will pay off.
He referenced the recent visit by a delegation from China in his response.
“There’s no way China would spent the money to have 28 people spending two weeks here if they weren’t deadly serious,” Justice said.
He added that some potential development under the deal continues to take shape.
“There’s another arena that centers around coal to liquids and coal to chemicals that they’re really interested in.
They’re trying to perfect the MOU. We’re in the process of trying to facilitate where they need to be.”
More broadly, Justice said he would like to see a more positive attitude reflected about the state.
“I am sick and tired of West Virginia being the blunt end of bad jokes. I want us to be first,” he said. “We’ve had enough to report on in West Virginia that’s not good.
“Oftentimes, whether it be the media or us talking in the grocery store, we focus and we talk about the bad. From West Virginia’s point of view, we’ve had the opportunity to talk about bad for a long, long, long time. We don’t need to keep reporting or talking at the grocery stores of our shortcomings. We need now to start moving in the direction of hope and recovery.”