By Mark Obenshain and Kirk Cox
“We who live in free-market societies believe that growth, prosperity and, ultimately, human fulfillment are created from the bottom up, not the government down.”
President Ronald Reagan uttered these words more than three decades ago, but they are especially relevant today as Virginia grapples with continuing economic stagnation.
Our commonwealth recently placed 48th among the 50 states in the rate of economic growth. Federal cuts to defense and other spending have fallen disproportionately on Virginia, exposing our over-dependence on public-sector employment.
At the same time, costly new federal mandates and onerous regulations have made it harder than ever for new businesses to get off the ground and for existing businesses of all sizes to invest and grow.
Closer to home, the Virginia story increasingly is about missed opportunities.
We have long been considered a business-friendly state, but recently our competitive position has begun to slip as other states revamp their tax and regulatory policies and modernize their economic development efforts.
Instead of a market-driven approach that prepares our young people, returning veterans, and other adults for high-demand jobs in the new economy, our workforce development programs are leaving many Virginians under-employed while businesses struggle to find the qualified employees they need in order to grow here.
Hard-earned tax dollars too often get wasted as localities, school systems, colleges, and government agencies operate in costly silos, duplicating administrative functions and services.
If ever Virginia needed a renewed commitment to Reagan’s vision of bottom-up, free-market growth and opportunity, it is now. That is why we are encouraged by the Virginia Initiative for Growth and Opportunity in Each Region, also known as “GO Virginia.”
It was launched this summer by businessmen and -women across our state who understand what it takes to grow the private sector because they have run enterprises, balanced budgets, and met payrolls.
Economic markets, not political boundaries, are the focus of private-sector job creators, whether in large or small enterprises. Businesses draw their employees from multiple localities within reasonable commuting distance, use suppliers and vendors from the surrounding area, and serve customers throughout the region and beyond.
A market-based approach to economic expansion thus requires a regional or broader perspective. And because Virginia is a large and diverse state, the opportunities for business growth and job-creation vary widely from one region to another.
GO Virginia contends that an engaged business community in each region can provide leadership in cooperation with local government and educational officials that will spur private-sector growth. One example — workforce development — illustrates this point.
Access to well-educated, skilled, and teachable employees is a top business concern in every part of Virginia, and state and local governments currently spend hundreds of millions annually on education and training programs. Yet, too often the things we are teaching our young people in our school systems and colleges bear little resemblance to the skills and preparation that businesses are demanding now and will need in the future.
As GO Virginia points out, a well-functioning free market requires good information. The current lack of engagement among business, education, and government helps explain why so many of our young people have trouble finding good jobs at the very time when so many businesses cannot find good workers.
If business voices were better heard in the corridors of government and in academia, more Virginia young people likely would have access to internships, work-study opportunities, apprenticeship programs, and other “pipeline” programs that lead to well-paying jobs and rewarding careers in the private sector. More students would pursue degrees and credentials that matter in the marketplace. Individual opportunity would rise, and small and large businesses would have the talent they need to thrive.
Another positive message from GO Virginia is the emphasis on improving government efficiency through voluntary collaboration between and among localities, school systems, and higher-education institutions. Every tax dollar that can be saved by improved performance is one less that needs to be taken from families and businesses. Reduced spending on government administration also means more resources for things that can help drive the economy forward without raising taxes.
Every business manager during these challenging times has found ways to innovate, improve, and make dollars go farther. Business leaders are right in insisting that public institutions do the same.
What can make GO Virginia a game-changer is the sustained involvement of experienced businesswomen and -men in all regions, sharing their proven business practices and economic insights. GO Virginia rightly contends that private-sector growth has to be private-sector led, and that the broadest possible business involvement will ensure a level playing field for all rather than unfair advantages for some.
Closer collaboration between business, education, and government in each region can result in practical policies that are more business-friendly, more conducive to private-sector job creation, and more economical for taxpayers.
The state government has a vital role to play in encouraging this voluntary, business-led collaboration in each region. Importantly, GO Virginia’s proposals call for deploying existing revenues and re-purposed dollars, not tax increases. Likewise, at the local level, the GO Virginia business coalition opposes new taxes, new mandates, new layers of government, and any change in the authority and accountability of duly elected local governments.
We applaud GO Virginia for offering a Reaganesque prescription for our stagnant Virginia economy — one that relies on the creative ingenuity of free people and the productive potential of free enterprise. The commonwealth should embrace a bottom-up rather than government-down vision of economic development in our state, and the time to start is now.
(This column first ran in the Richmond Times Dispatch on January 10, 2016 )
State Senator Mark D. Obenshain (R-Rockingham) is co-chairman of the Virginia Senate Republican Caucus.
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Delegate M. Kirkland “Kirk” Cox (R-Colonial Heights) is majority leader of the Virginia House of Delegates.