Guest Essays, Letters to the Editor, Opinion

Guest essay: Did Gov. Justice really take us for a ‘rocket ship’ ride?

by Tom S. Witt

As Gov. Jim Justice enters the seventh year of his term, it’s appropriate to start an assessment of the performance of the West Virginia economy during this period. As a reference, the state’s peak non-farm employment was 740,300 in May 2012, which was during Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s term. During his inaugural address, Gov. Justice promised to take state citizens on a rocket ship ride. So has he?

In January 2017, the start of Justice’s term, non-farm employment was 710,600. By December 2023, employment had risen to 717,900 but that was well below the state’s peak in 2012. During this period, only 7,300 jobs were created; however, this amount needs to be reduced by 1,500 due to the closure of Allegheny Wood Products and Cleveland-Cliffs. In addition, during his term, the state has lost 48,612 people.

Some will say that credit is not being given to the jobs that Nucor, LG Electronics, Form Energy and others will create in the future. While these may develop, there is also a history of “big” jobs announcements followed by crickets thereafter. Who remembers the $83.7 billion China Energy investment plan for shale natural gas and petrochemical projects in West Virginia made by the governor in 2017?

The governor touts the state as being good for business. But is it? The leading business channel, CNBC, annually publishes a report card ranking all 50 states from first to last by which is best for business. The ranking of state business climates uses 86 metrics on how well the states deliver on the factors that matter most to business. In the 2023 ranking, the heaviest-weighted category was workforce (16%), followed by infrastructure (15.6%), economy (14.4%) and life, health and inclusion (14%). Details can be found at

The top states in 2023 were North Carolina (1), Virginia (2), Tennessee (3), Georgia (4) and Minnesota (5). West Virginia ranked 46th, a drop from 44th in 2022. Thankfully, Hawaii, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alaska ranked below West Virginia. Consistently during Gov. Justice’s two terms, the state has ranked in the bottom 10% of all states.

CNBC gives grades for each category. The following report card was released:

  •  Workforce: F
  •  Infrastructure: D-
  •  Economy: F
  •  Life, Health & Inclusion: C-
  •  Cost of Doing Business: A+
  •  Technology & Innovation: F
  •  Business Friendliness: F
  •  Education: C+
  •  Access to Capitol: D
  •  Cost of Living: A+

Given this abysmal report card, what has the West Virginia Legislature enacted to address the state’s weaknesses that led to a perennial low ranking in the best states for business? How will legislators pitch the state to corporate leaders after the end of this session? Ask any business if they’re better off today. Or is this rocket ship stalled for the foreseeable future?

Tom S. Witt is an emeritus professor of economics at West Virginia University.