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CHAMBER SPEAKS

Contractors group again cites loss of W.Va. jobs

By Paul J. Nyden, The Charleston Gazette

A national contractors group said last week that West Virginia lost a bigger percentage of its construction jobs between April 2014 and April 2015 than any other state.

Construction employment in West Virginia dropped by 4,400 workers during those months, according to the Associated General Contractors of America. A few months ago, the group made a similar assertion about jobs between November 2013 and November 2014.

“I don’t think we’ve ever had the largest total of construction jobs lost [before this latest report]. We had not only the biggest percentage drop, but the biggest drop in the number of workers,” said Mike Clowser, executive director of the Contractors Association of West Virginia.

Nine other states suffered construction job losses between April 2014 and April 2015, while 41 states saw gains, led by North Dakota. That state’s 25.7 percent increase in construction jobs relied heavily on the rise of natural gas drilling.

“Hopefully, highway funding will get better,” Clowser said.

Support for more highway funding is coming from a wide range of groups, including: the national AFL-CIO, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Automobile Association (AAA) and the American Trucking Association.

The Chamber, AAA and the Trucking Association wrote a letter to Congress on January 26, stating: “Thirty-two percent of major roads are in poor or mediocre condition. This neglect costs the average driver $324 each year in additional vehicle repairs and operating costs….

“Fortunately there is a simple solution to address this issue in the near-term: raise the federal fuels user fee, provided the funds are used to ease congestion and improve safety,” the letter stated.

That federal gas tax has not been raised since 1993.

Steve Roberts, president of the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, said on Friday, “Additional funding for highway building is critical. All transportation is important.

“A federal solution does the most for West Virginia, as we would benefit from the support of taxes paid throughout the nation. Updating the federal gasoline excise tax and/or a modest federal sales tax are just two ideas for needed revenue,” Roberts said.

Declining coal employment is also a factor cutting construction jobs in West Virginia.

“We have members who used to do a lot of work for coal companies, building coal preparation plants, mine face-ups and mine roads,” Clowser said.

“I know of three coal companies that had construction divisions with upwards of 200 workers. Today, they have none or they closed down completely,” Clowser said. “Chances are those jobs will not be coming back.”

Highway and road construction are critical to the construction industry’s future.

Ken Simonson, chief economist at AGC of America, said, “The latest data show that construction is growing across most of the country but the gains remain uneven by month and state.

“Construction employment grew faster than overall employment in most states in the last 12 months, but the industry faces two challenges: a lack of experienced workers in many locations and a risk that funding for highway and transit projects will lapse in the next few months.”

“The last year that was good for highway construction was 2011,” Clowser said. “Today, 40 percent of those companies are doing less work.”

Construction employment in West Virginia dropped by 23 percent between 2007 and 2014.

Josh Sword, secretary-treasurer for the West Virginia AFL-CIO, said, “Because of the uncertainly in highway construction funding, jobs are down.

“Until the state develops and adopts a plan for highway funding, highway construction is going to be down. A plan has not been adopted as to how we are going to address our road situation.

“We need the Legislature and the governor to adopt a plan to address this, not only ongoing projects like Corridor H and Route 35. We also need to address the poor road conditions that exist as a result of decline in funding for their upkeep,” Sword said.

“It will be interesting to see what will happens in this next legislative session. I think people are getting fed up about the situation. In the last session, they did nothing to address the road situation other than order an audit of the [Division] of Highways,” he said. “A long-term plan to fund highway construction in West Virginia is desperately needed.”

Dropping construction employment also has wider impacts.

“The construction industry ripples throughout the entire economy, helping other businesses like food stores and restaurants, as well as schools, in local communities,” Clowser said.

“But today, we are seeing mergers, buy-outs and companies that say, ‘We just can’t continue.’ Some see it as the time to retire.

“We’re optimistic it will turn around. But how soon? How soon can we put people back to work?”

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.

Pacific free-trade pact still raising concerns

By Paul J. Nyden, The Charleston Gazette

Debates about the United States’ participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a controversial proposal that would oversee 40 percent of all U.S. foreign trade, have been going on for years. Those debates are coming back to Congress this week.

President Barack Obama has been pushing the proposed agreement. Supporters include politicians on both sides of the aisle, as do opponents. The trade is a central piece of Obama’s foreign policy in the Pacific region.

Like many trade agreement negotiations, details of the TPP negotiations have been largely secret. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, part of the Obama administration, says the agreement would “boost U.S. economic growth” and “support American jobs.”

Supporters of the deal want Congress to approve “fast-track” authority for the president as his administration negotiates the trade agreement. That would mean Congress could only vote yes or no on the final agreement, and could not change it.

Based on leaked details of the negotiations, observers believe stronger intellectual property and copyright laws would be part of the deal, which could benefit entertainment and software companies. Other businesses and manufacturing companies would also benefit, and strong support for TPP comes from many throughout the business community.

To read the full story, please click here.

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