— Putting Del. Espinosa on Rockwool’s payroll is not just a public relations blunder. His track record belies the company’s purported goals in building a plant in Ranson.
Rockwool’s controversial arrival to Jefferson County was made more contentious upon news in late July that the Danish insulation company hired state Delegate Paul Espinosa (R-Jefferson) as its public affairs manager. After all, it wasn’t just any delegate, but precisely the one supposed to represent tens of thousands of constituents who do not want the company to build an insulation plant across the street from North Jefferson Elementary School and burn 92 tons of coal and 1.6 million cubic feet of fracked gas per day.
Espinosa is also majority whip of the West Virginia House of Delegates. In this role, he holds a key position of power in the legislature, enforcing party discipline and ensuring that his colleagues vote the way the party wants. Given this scenario, Jefferson County residents have a right to ask themselves: Could it be that Espinosa’s position in the legislature, and his ability to “whip” up votes on key pieces of legislation, is what prompted Rockwool to offer him the job? And since he now has a dual role of company executive and state delegate, who is he representing—his constituents or the company that just put him on its payroll?
Corporate Welfare and the “Jobs” Excuse
One of many points of contention against Rockwool’s facility in Ranson were the plans to give the company $37 million in tax breaks and subsidies, including $25.4 million in government funding. Much like Rockwool, Espinosa also supports corporate welfare. Earlier this year, he sponsored a bill to cut down the severance tax on steam coal used in coal-fired plants. The bill, which was swiftly signed into law by Governor Jim Justice, will reduce state tax revenue by $20 million in its first year and nearly $60 million when fully implemented.
Supporters of the bill said it would create jobs but forgot to mention the massive tax rebates to primarily out-of-state corporations. According to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, the law will create between 100 and 500 new jobs at a cost of $120,000 to $600,000 per job. It would be simpler to just hold a lottery and cut checks to the winners; at least the money would be put into the state’s economy.
Rockwool defenders also say the Ranson plant will create good-paying jobs in Jefferson County. As it turns out, Espinosa is anything but a fan of good-paying jobs. In 2015, he sponsored a bill to undermine unions in our state and enact so-called “right-to-work” (RTW) legislation during the 2016 session. Right-to-work bars unions from collecting dues, stripping them of resources to operate and bargain on behalf of their members.
It’s been amply demonstrated that right-to-work legislation drives down wages and benefits. According to the Economic Policy Institute: “Wages in RTW states are 3.1 percent lower than those in non-RTW states (…) This translates into right-to-work being associated with $1,558 lower annual wages for a typical full-time, full-year worker.” Similarly, right-to-work laws do not boost employment—West Virginia still has the lowest labor force participation rate in the country—and by lowering wages, they also hurt tax revenues for local and state governments.
In 2016, Espinosa sponsored yet another bill to undermine workers. The bill sought to repeal the so-called “prevailing wage” for construction of public works in West Virginia. “Prevailing wage” provisions protect workers from contractors who seek to underbid on public works contracts and then pay them less. This time, the excuse to support this law was that it would generate “savings” for the state. Three years after the bill became law, a study from the Midwest Economic Policy Institute found that repealing prevailing wage provisions had generated no savings to taxpayers. Considering Rockwool itself is using nonunion and out-of-state contractors to build its factory in Ranson, it is no wonder that the company would hire an enemy of unions and workers as its spokesperson.
A Climate Change Skeptic?
In 2016, Espinosa cosponsored a bill which prevented the state Board of Education from introducing new standards concerning climate change. These included teaching K-12 students in mandatory courses that global temperatures have risen and that human activities are the primary cause. Echoing other House members beholden to the coal industry who complained that the standards didn’t reflect “both sides” of the debate, Espinosa explained that his bill “… says let’s keep the standards we have in place now, and let’s take a more thorough look and make sure we’re getting the best standards available.”
In its own publications, Espinosa’s new employer, Rockwool, raises the alarm over climate change and prompts immediate action to ameliorate its effects. Senior Vice President Mirella Vitale wrote on the company’s website that “… limitations on air pollution must be put in place on a global scale to produce the effects needed for climate change to subside.”
How can Rockwool reconcile its stated concern about climate change while hiring as its spokesperson someone who objects to climate change being adequately taught to our children? Does Paul Espinosa believe in climate change or has Rockwool hired a climate change denier to be its public face in West Virginia?
But this is not the only problem with Del. Espinosa’s contentious approach to education. As chairman of the House Education Committee, Espinosa has consistently shown his preference for his party’s talking points and positions, as well as policies promoted by corporate-funded outfits like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Whether it’s charters, education savings accounts, reduced funding for public education, or union bashing, the agenda, not constituent needs, has been paramount. At every turn, he has been steadfast in his support for putting public money in private pockets, and short-changing the real needs of educators and service personnel.
“Citizen Legislator” Espinosa
Shortly after Rockwool announced that Espinosa would be its spokesperson, numerous Jefferson County residents expressed their dismay on the company’s Facebook page. The company dismissed those concerns by claiming how West Virginia “… proudly embraces the idea of citizen legislators,” a euphemism for legislators who need a parallel, full-time employer because their job as representative is only part-time. Even though other states have part-time representatives, the situation is particularly ripe for questionable votes in West Virginia, where the law makes it difficult for legislators to recuse themselves.
Espinosa has already been a full-time corporate executive with a part-time gig as legislator. His eight-year stint (2008-2016) as general manager at Frontier Communications saw the company become the target of numerous customer complaints due to poor service. Since 2013, Espinosa has also served as a state delegate.
The complaints against Frontier prompted West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrissey to file a lawsuit in 2014 which accused the company of promising broadband speeds of up to 6 Mbps but instead delivering speeds of 1.5 Mbps or lower. In December of 2015, Frontier reached a $160 million settlement in which the company agreed to spend an additional $150 million on infrastructure improvements across the state as well as reduce monthly customer bills by $10 million during a three-year period.
According to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey, West Virginia ranks 49th in the nation in internet access. One would think that a company like Frontier, which makes billions in profits, and used to have a state delegate on its payroll, would have done better for West Virginia.
Ultimately, the question remains, why did Rockwool hire Espinosa as its spokesperson? His résumé shows little experience in public relations. His legislative record on good-paying jobs and workers is appalling. His environmental record is just as bad, considering he has helped prop up failing coal companies and opposed teaching updated climate change standards in our schools.
It is possible that Rockwool was more interested in a different item on Espinosa’s résumé. Even in the unlikely event he can recuse himself from voting on issues that may affect Rockwool, his role in the House is to ensure his fellow party members vote a certain way. After all, what company wouldn’t want to have a majority whip on its payroll?
— Submitted by Gonzalo Baeza and Grant Prillaman
Gonzalo is a writer and former correspondent for United Press International and other news agencies. Grant just retired from teaching in Jefferson County Schools. He is a labor and environmental activist with a family farm near Shepherdstown.