CiviCs students at Pocahontas County High School met with U.S. Senator Joe Manchin via Skype last week to discuss current issues in the state and country. Senior Ryan Irvine, above, asks Manchin about the future of coal, employment opportunities and economic development options for the state. S. Stewart photo

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

Pocahontas County High School students in Sherman Taylor’s and Wanda Hrabina’s civics classes were joined by U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, via Skype, last week to discuss issues West Virginia and the United States are facing today.

Five students each asked a question and Manchin gave answers and led a conversation with the students.

Manchin’s answers have been edited for space.

Senior Ryan Irvine: President Trump has promised to bring coal mining jobs back to West Virginia. Along with the increase in mining, what other employment opportunities and areas of economic growth do you envision for our state?

Senator Manchin: First of all, let me just say, I appreciate President Trump’s support of our coal mining and our coal miners, and all the things that we’ve done as a state. We produce an awful lot of energy. We’ve done the heavy lifting for a long time – over a century now.

The rural state of West Virginia is mining the coal that’s made the steel, the factories that build the ships that defend this country, so we’re very proud of our heritage. Coal, under the Obama administration, took a different direction and I thought it was ill advised. I think that basically, if you know what’s happening around the world, there’s billions of tons of coal burned. The product’s going to be used around the world.

If you want to help the global climate, we all should be concerned about the environment and global climate. Then, you’ve got to find the technology that allows you to use a product they’re going to use anyway.

They’re building over 1,000 coal fired plants in India and China. China uses half of the world’s consumption. One country – four billion tons a year. So, you have to take a global view. I’ve always said that West Virginia – with a little bit of involvement with federal government through research and development – we could basically find a new technology that allows us to use coal and burn coal much cleaner than ever before.

In the last two decades, we cleaned up the atmosphere and the environment more than ever before in history. There’s more to be done, but people sink their heads in the sand and say, “I’m just not going to use coal anymore.” Well, that’s fine if you have something else.

I have people say, “all renewables.” I like wind and I like solar and I like hydro. Those are all renewables, but if you’re going to be reasonable and practical, and that’s what you want for your power today, then tell me what five hours of the day you want your energy to work, because that’s about what you’re going to get.

So when we say “all in” in the energy policy – use everything you have. Use your coal. Use the natural gas. Use your renewables. Use it all in a fashion that it complements so that we can be less dependent on foreign energy. We should be totally energy independent in this country.

If we want to help the rest of the world clean up, then make sure that we develop the technology that works, that’s feasible and reasonable and then make sure through our trading policies that if you’re going to do trade with the United States – the biggest economy in the world – then you’re going to have to adapt these things that will protect the environment.

It’s kind of a win-win. But right now we haven’t been too practical about how we approach it. As far as coal coming back the way it was before, I don’t see that happening because a lot of the coal fired plants in America have shut down. I think it will be stabilized. President Trump basically can stabilize that.

Senior Drake Warder: What improvements to infrastructure would you like to see in President Trump’s plan that would benefit West Virginia?
Senator Manchin: When I was the governor, I had a five-year highway plan and I would have enough money coming from the federal government and the state government to put in a five-year plan. That’s how you got most of Corridor H finished. We made that a priority.

We need another five-year, or long term plan. You can’t just do a one-year infrastructure deal. We need to finish Corridor H. Next of all, we need connectivity. We need high speed Internet. You should be able to live wherever you want to live in West Virginia and be connected by high speed. If you have that, you can make a living and be wherever you want to be.

Right now, we’re challenged in West Virginia because we don’t have as good connectivity as we should. That’s America. With that being said, you need also the basics of water and sewer, all need repairs – what we call differed maintenance.

We haven’t done that with infrastructure. We always say, “well, we don’t have enough money, we can’t fix this.” Before you know it, a little pothole turns into a big pothole that tears your car apart because we haven’t done our routine maintenance.

Infrastructure creates jobs. Infrastructure can’t be worn down. It has to be somebody going to work in West Virginia that fixes and builds the things that I’m talking about. A lot of jobs are provided through infrastructure.

Junior Hunter Tankersley: Drug abuse has become a national tragedy and a crisis in West Virginia. What steps can the federal government take to help lower drug abuse rates?

Senator Manchin: First of all, it’s education. My goodness, we should be starting in kindergarten and grade school, educating all of you about the horrific effects of any type of drug abuse or drug use that’s not needed.

This all started with legal drugs, prescription drugs. Doctors are over prescribing. The FDA is putting too much product on the market. The DEA is allowing doctors to prescribe that don’t have any medical knowledge of the effects.

West Virginia is ground zero for drug abuse. We have the highest death rate from overdose in the nation on a per capita basis. Percentage wise, the little state of West Virginia had over 818 deaths last year from prescription drugs. That’s ridiculous.

I’ve been trying to get the FDA to curtail that. If they’re going to bring in a new product on the market, the FDA – the Food and Drug Administration – that’s an agency that basically says what is safe to consume. If they allow a pharmaceutical manufacturer to produce a product, you would think that it should be safe for your consumption.

Well, we know these opiates, these prescription drugs that basically are being prescribed are legal. They are made by legal companies and the federal government said it is a good product; that your doctor, who’s most trusted said, “go head, it will help you” and before you know it, you’re addicted and you overdose and die.

It starts with education. There’s not one of you sitting in that room right now that doesn’t know somebody in your family or your extended family or close friend that’s not affected by drugs. Not one of you. My family is no different. Its just absolutely had an effect of epidemic proportions.

Over 200,000 Americans have died since 1999. Any other type of disaster such as that would be declared an epidemic or pandemic. We’d be doing something.

You’ve heard about Ebola. You’ve heard about Zika. We’re scared of outbreaks. We spend billions of dollars trying to prevent that from happening, and we haven’t done anything here.

I’ve got new pieces of legislation. First of all, people are going to get treatment centers. There’s nowhere to get treatment. Usually anybody that falls into drugs, any of you – God forbid, I hope you don’t – but if you know somebody that has and if you’re going down that path, I hope you get help and stop because what will happen, you will get a conviction on your record.

You’re going to start stealing from your family. You’ll steal from your friends, neighbors. You’ll steal from anybody to support your habit. It’s just the way it happens. You will get arrested and you will get a conviction and you will have a record. But right now, there are no treatment centers. We have very few places where people can go and someone can really help them.

So, I have a bill that says we’re going to charge one penny per milligram. For every milligram of opiates sold in America, one penny will be charged to go for treatment. Do you know how much one penny per milligram in America will create? One-and-a-half to two billion – with a B – dollars a year.

We’re the most drug addicted nation on earth. Of all the opiates in the world that are produced and sold, the United States of America – we have less than five percent of the population – we consume over 80 percent of all the opiates.

Let me tell you another statistic that really hurts me. The first time in my life that I have ever seen the workforce in West Virginia fall below 50 percent. Now what I mean is if there are ten people of working age, only five, less than five are working. What happened to the others? There are three things that keep you out of the workforce – addiction, conviction and a lack of skill sets.

If you don’t obtain a skill set while you’re going through this educational process, God help you, because you will end up being underemployed or unemployed. That’s just the facts. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it.

You’ve got to have those skill sets, but you also have to be clean.

In the military today, for every 10 people that go to enlist in the military, seven are disqualified. Seven out of 10 can’t get in the military because they don’t have an education or they have an addiction. Can you believe our country has gotten to that point? To where seven out of 10 people who would want to serve or could serve in our military can’t actually get in because they haven’t obtained a good enough education, their skill sets aren’t good enough or they’ve got a conviction on their record or they’ve been addicted to drugs. That’s a shame.

Senior Kevin Thompson: You are getting a lot of attention being a conservative Democrat from a state that overwhelmingly supported President Trump in the last election. How much pressure are you feeling from both sides on supporting issues today and how much pressure did you feel when you filled the vacancy left by the late Robert C. Byrd?

Senator Manchin: That’s a great question. I appreciate it very much. I was elected to be your governor; I’ve been secretary of state. As governor, I set the budget. I wasn’t going to make your parents pay for something or any of you all pay for something just because I made a political promise and create a hardship.

My priority is based on my values. I want to make sure we have education; that children are treated right; the seniors are treated right; that we can do the things to give our veterans the respect they deserve – the things I felt were done because I was fiscally responsible and I’m socially compassionate.

I’m compassionate to anyone having hard times. I’ll help you help yourself. I expect you, if you are capable, to get up and do something. I want to help you get back into the game. I’m going to be very compassionate toward somebody who has a disability. Maybe they were born with it or it happened to them in life. I think, the more compassion you have – that is basically what your moral compass is. You need to take care of those who can’t take care of themselves and help those who can’t help themselves be more independent.

They say I’m conservative. I’m a product of my environment. I feel very strongly that we all have a responsibility to be productive. Every one of you, whether you have a dollar in your pocket or not, can do something. You can give a little bit of kindness and a little bit of help. A little bit of effort. If someone is having a harder time, we can all do something.

I am a Democrat because of how I was raised. I have a little different philosophy than some of my Republican friends, but they’re still my friends. They’re not my enemies. If people have an R by their name, that doesn’t mean I’m against them.

When I was governor, I took an oath of office. As a U.S. Senator, I take an oath of office to serve everybody to the best of my ability as the Constitution requires me to do it. I don’t say, “I will support all those who supported me and the heck with the rest of them.” That’s not my oath of office.

The Constitution is who we are. The rule of law makes us different than any other country on earth because the rule of law says, “I don’t care who you are. I don’t care what party you are. I don’t care how much money you have. Justice is blind. Everyone is treated the same and should be held to the same code.” That’s it.

I don’t play the party line to where “I’m a Democrat, and I’m going to do everything that the Democrat party wants done.” I’m a Democrat because I’ve got compassion and I’ve got responsibility and I want to be held accountable. I think this is a shifting society. I’m going to be able to move and shift with it.

I want you all to have an opportunity. I don’t want you to feel like you’ve got to leave West Virginia. I don’t want you to feel ashamed to say where you’re from. I am so proud of who we are, what we’ve done and contributed. I know we’ve got tough times now, but we’re going to be so much better. It sure as heck can’t be better if you all think you’ve got to leave.

I can’t replace Robert Byrd. He was unbelievable. If I could even follow his footsteps, I’m happy. I try to do that. He was spiritually independent and I am, too. I think most West Virginia’s are.

Senior Brady Jones: Can you tell us something that you have already done as senator that you are proud to have accomplished and what are some other issues you would like to tackle during your tenure in the U.S. Senate?

Senator Manchin: There are so many things. Equality, as far as women’s rights. We voted, and we’re working on that to make sure that if you’re female or male, you are paid the same. You get paid the same for the same job.

Next, we’re working on the miner’s pension and protection of healthcare rights.

Also, I was able to get the Food and Drug Administration to reschedule all types of opiates – Vicodin and Loritab – those were basically being distributed like they were M&Ms. We’ve got that from a Schedule III to a Schedule II.

The first year, we took over a million pills off the market, hopefully keeping people from getting addicted or dying from overdoses. That was extremely important.

I think being on the Armed Services Intelligence Committee, we’re doing investigations and trying to make sure that those who wish to do us harm are not capable or able to do it. Making sure our military is as strong as it possibly can be and trying to make sure that we are staying up to strength and defending our country. I think that’s one of the most important things that we do.

I tried to get something done that I thought made all the common sense in the world. You and I, living in West Virginia, come from a gun culture. We understand guns. We cherish the Second Amendment – the right to bear arms. Also, guns are a responsibility, and I led the effort to have background checks.

I don’t believe that terrorists and criminals should have the ease of obtaining a weapon to do harm unless we know who the heck they are and what they want to do with it. I was trying to bring in common sense.

Another reasonable solution is, I’ve got people that I call last chance or first chance, a person that’s basically been convicted because they were stealing and they’ve got a felony on their record because they have an opiate addiction. If they get clean and stay clean for one year, if they become a mentor for another year, then that person should be able to go before the arresting officer and the sentencing judge to see if they have earned the right to have their record expunged to get back into the workforce.

I’m proud of the things, the work I’m doing and the work that I’ve been able to do. There’s an awful lot more to do, too. I appreciate the question, but it’s an ongoing battle here.

It seems like if you’re a Democrat and I’m a Republican, I’m supposed to be against you. I’m sorry, I’m not against you because you’re in a different party. I’m not against you because you might think a little differently on certain subjects than I do. I do believe I have the opportunity to sit down with you to find out if we can come to an agreement.

You might have people in that room you don’t care for. You might have people in that room you’ve said something nasty about. Well, did you try to communicate? Did you try to get along first? Or did you just come to an opinion that you didn’t like somebody? Did you come to an opinion you just wanted to be mean-spirited and say something on social media? I don’t know.

I can tell you one thing. I ask people all the time, “how many of you want to be wealthy? How many of you want to be famous? How many of you want to be happy?” I would hope everybody wants to be happy. I can’t guarantee you the wealth that you might want. You’re going to have to earn that. I can’t guarantee you the fame. You might be and you might not be. But I can sure as heck guarantee you that you can be happy.

You know how? You’ve got to like yourself. If you go home at night and you like yourself and you had a good day, you’re going to be happy. If you did something good and you feel good, I want to be around you because I want to get some of that positive energy from you.

If you’ve been a complete screw up and you’ve been mean and nasty, saying horrible things, I want nothing to do with you because if you’re talking about somebody else, I guarantee you, you’ll be talking about me before the day is up. That’s human nature.

Try to make yourself happy.

Senator Manchin thanked the students for their attention and for joining him in the conversation on current issues.