[This piece was published in the Spirit of Jefferson in January, 2016.]
West Virginia faces real peril this winter. Ever greater external challenges to our economy and our working families have arisen. Internally, a dangerous group of Republican politicians have taken control of our legislature, severely handicapping our ability to meet those challenges. After last year’s disastrous legislative session, in which Republicans handed goodies out to all their friends, we find the state budget in shambles this year.
Last year’s “grab what you can, while you can” session, orchestrated by Republican honchos like Senator Cole, AG Morrisey, and Speaker Armstead, have revealed what’s in store for us this year. We’ve learned a lot about the Republicans now that we see what they do in the driver’s seat. But first and foremost, we have learned this: they are not who they say they are.
These Republicans claim our constitutional rights are important to them. But when the gas companies came calling, they pushed for “forced pooling” — a fancy term for state-sanctioned theft. Speaker Armstead failed to pass it by one vote, and has promised to circle back and collect your property rights this year. They are not who they say they are.
These Republicans claimed to be about ethics. But their attorney general, Morrisey, has delivered scandal after scandal. Not only did he try to put his campaign manager on the state payroll, he misrepresented West Virginia’s positions in court, engaged in highly-questionable campaign-finance practices, and falsely claimed to have recused himself from matters implicating his wife’s lobbying business. Worst of all, he continually puts publicity-stunt lawsuits ahead of his real job, which is supposed to be protecting consumers. They are not who they say they are.
Our new powers-that-be claimed they would focus on more jobs, and higher wages. But Bill Cole did just the opposite. His Senate oversaw a series of giveaways to powerful, moneyed corporations and influential campaign financiers. The ordinary working West Virginia family got left behind, while Republicans politicos repaid their pals with bills taking away working families’ prevailing wages, legal rights, and safety protections. He is most definitely not who he says he is.
But now we have seen, and now we know. As a result, their proposals for the new session become predictable. Not only do they plan to legalize the theft of privately-owned land with forced pooling, they mean to do away with prevailing wages altogether. They are coming to bust up unions so ownership can squeeze paychecks even harder. They look to renege on the health care and pensions promised to our schoolteachers, police, and firefighters.
Republican politicians will probably try to chip away at the right to vote, lessening the ordinary person’s voice in government. At the same time they seek to expand limits on campaign contributions — perhaps to $100,000 or more per person, or even unlimited amounts, to help an ever smaller number of rich people exercise an ever larger degree of control over our government.
The Republican plan lacks originality. In fact it comes straight from the words of a certain Pharaoh, who did not know Joseph: “And he said unto his people, Behold, the people of the children of Israel are more and mightier than we. Come on, let us deal wisely with them; lest they multiply . . .” Outnumbered by ordinary folks, the elite Republican money machine know it needs to act now to shield their perks. Therefore, they target for destruction all the sources of strength the middle class has relied on to maintain a voice in West Virginia – courts, unions, and the right to vote.
We aren’t ruled by an all-powerful Pharaoh (just yet). So how do they mean to get away with it? Simple: cover everything up with blame. Blame is all Republican politicians have to cover up their agenda— “83 years!” they cry, whenever their latest attempt at plunder is pointed out. But it’s wearing very thin, and people are wising up to the blame game.
The ceaseless reliance on the rhetoric of blame tells us that they will never lead West Virginia out of crisis. Indeed, today, Republican politicians are the leading beneficiaries of West Virginia’s problems. They’ve learned the art of blame so well that bad news for us is good news for them.
So in 2016, Republicans will seek to drive down wages, threatening even the state minimum wage, as well as prevailing wages, to keep people too far down on the economic ladder to do anything more than survive. The low-wage policy pads corporate profits and protects Republican power simultaneously. To the corporate chieftain, and the Republican pol, good wages anywhere are a threat to low wages everywhere. That goes double for strong unions — therefore they will also be targeted.
Likewise, Republicans will seek to eliminate the level-playing field in our courtrooms, tilting the board ever more in favor of insurance companies and the Chamber of Commerce and against the working man and woman, and their families. Big business doesn’t want a fair shake in court — it wants a sure thing — and Republican “leaders” will try to serve up our rights on silver platters. And if fewer and fewer people can or will vote, that’s better for them too.
“There came into Egypt a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph” – a takeover. West Virginia has also been taken over, by new would-be rulers who see the working people as their enemies, and the rich and powerful as their friends and employers. The takeover needs to be stopped this year, or the disastrous effects of these anti-working family policies will be felt for generations to come.