Editorial: Northam joins a much-needed conversation on rural Virginia | Opinion


Never let a crisis go to waste.

That quote is attributed to Rahm Emmanuel, the former chief of staff to Barack Obama and now mayor of Chicago, but conservatives shouldn’t let the left-leaning origin trouble them: It’s good advice for those across the political spectrum. It’s especially good advice right now for those concerned with the fate of rural America.

If the election of Donald Trump accomplishes nothing else, it has, at least accomplished this: People who previously barely knew rural America existed are now starting to pay attention to the economic and demographic crisis that many rural communities are suffering.

The Wall Street Journal — editorially, the voice of the nation’s business community — has focused reporting resources to look at rural economies. By crunching government statistics, the Journal produced a startling analysis that, by many measures, rural areas are now the nation’s “new inner city.”

Microsoft, which for some years now has been focused on trying to extend broadband Internet service to rural Africa, has now discovered that some parts of rural America are just as stranded outside the modern economy. Last week, Microsoft announced a project to use unused television bandwidths to deliver broadband to rural areas —including two counties in Southside Virginia.

Unfortunately, the man who set all this in motion seems remarkably deaf to the problems of the rural voters who supported him in unprecedented numbers. President Trump’s budget actually zeroes out the very agencies and programs most responsible for trying to build a new economy in rural areas — starting with the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Nevertheless, we see other politicians — from both parties — starting to step up in ways we frankly haven’t seen them do before. Last week, Del. William Morefield, R-Tazewell County, proposed exempting the state’s poorest localities from the state income tax for ten years as a way to attract new employers. That may or may not be the best idea, but it is, at least, a big idea — one radical enough to be commensurate with the problem that many rural localities, especially those in his coalfield district, are facing.

Now Ralph Northam, the Democratic candidate for governor, has unveiled an economic plan for rural Virginia. If you’re a cynic, this is all just cheap campaign rhetoric — be it from Northam or Morefield or anybody else — but we’d prefer to think that there’s a real conversation starting to take place. On that score, both Morefield and Northam deserve participation points; so will Ed Gillespie, the Republican candidate for governor, if he follows suit. Northam’s plan — whether it winds up being the best plan or only the second-best plan —is noteworthy in several respects. He’s not following the usual Democratic model. Of course, the usual Democratic model in recent years has been to ignore rural areas, so there’s that. Republicans will find lots of reasons to oppose Northam on other grounds if they want to, but his rural economic agenda is not one of them — especially since parts of it are basically copied from the Republican play book.

Some of Northam’s plan incorporates things we’ve heard him say before — such as his plan to provide “last dollar” tuition for certain qualifying community college students and his plan to expand the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Both of these are good ideas that, once all the commotion of the campaign is over, should be endorsed by Republicans as well, and enacted no matter who wins.

In fact, Northam’s community college plan is actually pretty similar to a plan that Tennessee’s Republican governor proposed — and a Republican legislature there enacted — as an economic development measure.

Northam’s call to expand UVA-Wise — and use that expansion to focus on the study of renewable energy — is more unique to him. On Tuesday, he put a price tag on it: $15 million. Northam points out that communities with large colleges are growth areas in today’s economy. “You won’t just grow a university; you’ll grow a city. I think it’s a great way to develop the Southwest.”

That’s certainly true. Expanding UVA-Wise is an exciting idea that dovetails with college’s recent focus on cybersecurity programs and Wise County’s goal to re-create itself as a technology hub in the center of Appalachia — “Silicon Hollow,” as some have called it.

On the other hand, any expansion of UVA-Wise will be felt in Wise, but not necessarily elsewhere in Southwest Virginia — just as Virginia Tech’s growth is felt in Montgomery County but not, say, two counties away in Alleghany County. Morefield essentially foreshadowed this when he proposed his tax cut plan: “One or two major projects are not going to be the saving grace of Southwest Virginia. We’ve really got to do something significant . . .”

By that measure, the most significant part of Northam’s proposal may be his own tax cut plan. For the first two years for any new businesses in what he called “rural and economically depressed regions,” he’d waive two local taxes — the Business and Professional Occupation License tax and the Merchant’s Capital tax. Northam’s logic is sound: Waiving it for new businesses wouldn’t cost local governments anything, and might encourage new businesses to locate in rural areas. Yes, here’s a Democrat proposing to cut taxes on businesses because he recognizes that businesses employ people. That ought to count for something. To be fair, Gillespie wants to phase out those taxes statewide, which might be a good idea, but wouldn’t give any competitive advantage to rural areas, which is the point of Northam’s plan (and Morefield’s, too).

Here’s the real question: Is that enough to make a difference? Is this the Marshall Plan for rural Virginia we’ve wanted to see, or just a pale copy? That’s a question we can’t answer. It’s not as radical as Morefield’s income tax waiver, which Northam questions on fiscal grounds. Morefield’s plan would reduce state revenues; Northam’s wouldn’t. Both presume there’ll be a payoff in the future, just on different timelines. We could argue all day over which idea is best. In the end, let’s agree on this: These proposals are not necessarily in conflict. Instead, they’re part of a much-needed conversation about how to rebuild the economy of rural Virginia. Toward that end, they’re both good ideas. This is the conversation we’ve been trying to get started. Now, let’s see where it goes.

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