Each year I attend the Southern Legislative Conference (SLC) to attend various meetings with my colleagues, learning from each other's successes and failures.

By Del. Gary Howell

Each year I attend the Southern Legislative Conference (SLC) to attend various meetings with my colleagues, learning from each other’s successes and failures.

The SLC is made up of the 15 southern states: Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and every state south and east of those.

This year’s annual meeting was held in Biloxi, Mississippi. Each day is filled with various meetings. I make sure that I attend the Economic Development, Transportation & Cultural Affairs Committee and the Fiscal Affairs & Government Operations Committee meetings. These fit bests with chairing the House Committee on Government Organization and serving on the Roads and Transportation Committee in the House.

This also works well because I am a strong advocate for economic development and job growth. No taxpayer money was spent during this trip.

My first meeting was a site tour of downtown Gulf Port, Mississippi, 13 miles from the host site in Biloxi. In 2005, Gulf Port was heavily damaged by hurricane Katrina. A marker on the pavilion in Jones Park shows the water was 28 feet deep, four feet higher than hurricane Camille in 1969.

Chris Vignes, public information officer for the City of Gulf Port, hosted the tour. He talked not only about the homes that were lost, but the citizens’ places of work were also gone. Prior to Katrina, downtown Gulfport had five restaurants; today because of their strong program to bring back business there are now more than 30 restaurants.

Their efforts focused on presenting unified tourism advertising. Prior to Katrina, each city such as Gulfport and Biloxi marketed themselves, but now they are pooling their resources and marketing Mississippi’s Gulf Coast - to much success.

Much of what they did in hurricane recovery can be duplicated here in West Virginia in our flood-damaged areas; also we can look at marketing regions like the Potomac Highlands by pooling the various resources across the region.

One very interesting concept being done in downtown Gulfport is “Fishbone Alley.” Working with the various shops, restaurants, and night clubs that bordered a typical alley filled with dumpsters, they created a unique space. The city removed the asphalt and installed bricks from the original streets along with overhead string lights. The businesses removed their dumpsters or hid them, turned their back doors into entrances and had local artisans painted what could not be moved. The area is now very colorful with a vibrant night life. The unique paintings and atmosphere is now attracting weddings and photographers for senior photos. This area is less than a year old and still developing, but it goes to show how a little idea can develop in to an economic engine.

At the first Economic Development, Transportation & Cultural Affairs meeting, one presentation was very interesting. It was dealing with autonomous/self-driving vehicles by Scott Shogan, vice president of US Advisory Services. The focus was on state laws dealing with vehicles that can assist the driver or to drive themselves without driver input.

In some states, there are no laws governing these vehicles, and the focus was making sure there are not 50 different laws in 50 different states to make it hard for manufacturers to continue to market the technology.

After the presentation, the follow-on questions took an interesting turn, focusing on cars having to make moral decisions. One legislator asked if a kid runs out in front of a self-driving car and the car is faced with a choice, to hit the child or hit a tree possibly injuring those in the car, how does it decide?

The discussion continued along those lines with various scenarios discussed, including parked self-driving cars moving themselves out of the way to avoid damage protecting themselves. Sometimes good science fiction can be a predictor of the future. This discussion was exactly what Isaac Asimov predicted in his 1942 short story “Runaround” when he first penned the Three Laws of Robotics, just instead of a robot from science fiction, it is a 3,000-pound Chevy with a mind of its own.

It may be time for the Three Laws of Self-Driving Cars.

Two other presentations at the Economic Development, Transportation & Cultural Affairs meetings really stood out. One by Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, presented on Tennessee Promise, a program to provide two years of free Community & Technical College to every graduating senior in Tennessee. These two-year degrees are in high demand. In 2014 there was a 32 percent shortage of trained workers for these positions. It is called the “middle skills gap” and by 2024 it is estimated the gap could be as large at 50 percent.

Many of these two-year technical degrees will pay more than many four-year college degrees. I have already started doing research on replicating this program to provide free two-year community and technical college education to all graduating seniors in West Virginia. It will benefit the students and the state’s economy.

The other presentation that really stuck out was by Joe Max Higgins Jr., an extremely colorful character who is the CEO of the Golden Triangle Development LINK. Since 2007, they have moved their area from 211st, to currently 40th as the best place to do business. At one point, they were as high as 10th.

Their program is about diversification and attracting manufacturing jobs, which create secondary jobs driving the economy. Probably the most important take-away from the meeting is focusing on the goal of economic growth and not getting tied up in that which is not directly part of job growth.

This is something that could be changed in Mineral County to promote more economic growth. Kevin Clark is doing an excellent job, but is being held back by those who get caught up in extraneous pursuits and that must change.

Most of the issues that were presented at the “Fiscal Affairs & Government Operations Committee” were issues such as pension funding and private public partnership agreements. This is something that West Virginia has been a leader on and other states are looking to us.

I was proud of the West Virginia Department of Education which won a State Transformation in Action Recognition (STAR) Award for their Electronic Application Processing System. The award was presented at the closing banquet when all the various state representatives were present.

The program allows for online registration of teacher certifications, reducing work load.

Mississippi was a very good host presenting the best their state had to offer, but I still believe West Virginia was the best when we hosted the 2012 annual meeting in Charleston.

As always, I work for you, so if you have any questions, help with a state agency or just and idea that you think would make the state better please let me know. My contact is Gary.Howell@WVHouse.gov and my phone is (304) 340-3192.