Time to listen to the gadflies

Every public body ought to include at least one gadfly. You know, the people who ask outrageous questions and make suggestions many say are impractical, to the point they embarrass others who serve with them on city councils, county commissions, boards of educations, and in legislatures and Congress.

Here in West Virginia, we have no shortage of gadflies in state government. We call them Republicans.

For a long, long time, they were no more than a minor annoyance for the Democrats who controlled the state Legislature. Former Republican state Sen. Larry Swann, of Doddridge County, once told me GOP senators could hold a party caucus in a phone booth. I started to laugh at the joke, then realized it was literally true, providing all of the Republican senators were watching their weight.

It isn’t anymore. After dramatic gains in last fall’s elections, about a third of the 34-member state Senate is Republican now. In the House of Delegates, the shift was even more dramatic; 46 of the 100 House members are Republicans.

Drawing conclusions from that would be risky. For starters, one reason last fall was a bad time to be a Democrat seeking office was that President Barack Obama was at the head of the ticket. I can’t think of a Democrat president more heartily disliked, with good reason, in West Virginia.

But more voters actually considering Republican candidates may mean something else – that the gadflies are starting to make sense to West Virginians.

Here’s why: During the past 20 years or so, conservative Democrats have accomplished truly important, praiseworthy things in reversing what once was a headlong charge toward ruin in West Virginia. Billions and billions of dollars in unfunded liabilities had been run up by legislators and governors eager to please special interest groups while mortgaging the state’s future. Under former Gov. Gaston Caperton, a Democrat, that began to be reversed.

In large measure because governors and legislators since the Caperton administration have kept a lid on spending while paying down our debts, West Virginia was a model for state fiscal management during the so-called Great Recession. While other states were raising taxes, slashing services and taking federal bailouts, ours was not. Our financial house was in order.

That feat should not be minimized. Again, leaders in most other states weren’t doing it.

But progress continues to pass us by. Business leaders seeking locations for new factories often turn up their noses at us, for various reasons. Our hillbilly image is only part of it. Factors such as our refusal to pass a “right to work” law and the high tax burden we place on businesses make private sector leaders look to other states first.

A new report on state tax burdens has been released by the Anderson Economic Group. The firm’s analysts ranked the states on what percentage of businesses’ operating margins are taxed. West Virginia was ranked fifth highest.

State officials are working to change that, but progress has been excruciatingly slow. Meanwhile, Republican leaders insist more needs to be done faster – to attract the good jobs Mountain State residents need. They have put forth specific proposals to make the state more attractive to the business world.

As election returns last fall show, more and more West Virginia voters are beginning to think that maybe the GOP gadflies, belittled and ignored for so many decades, ought to be given a shot at a new direction for our state.

Just a few days ago, a two-time Republican candidate for governor, Morgantown businessman Bill Maloney, announced establishment of a new think tank, the Center for a Brighter Future. Maloney, who lost in 2011 and 2012 to Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, said the organization will be looking at proposals he made during his campaigns for governor. Job creation and curbing government spending and intrusive regulations will be on the agenda. So will healthy lifestyles, Maloney added. That alone would be a good thing.

Maloney’s think tank, by fleshing out details of strategies to move our state forward, is a good step. It’s time to listen to the gadflies.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mike Myer is executive editor of The Intelligencer and the Wheeling News-Register. He can be reached via e-mail at myer@theintelligencer.net