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Editorial-Investing responsibly

January 26, 1998

As West Virginia enters the stock market for the first time, should the state's investment policy makers consider whether stocks the state buys are from "do right" companies? Or should the bottom line be the only consideration? It's an interesting question that goes to the heart of a debate the state needs to have now, before long-term investment policies are in place.

West Virginians approved their state investing in stocks last fall, after state officials successfully convinced them that by restricting investment to government bonds, the state's pension systems were losing millions in potential earnings.

Craig Slaughter, executive director of the state's Investment Management Board, told the Charleston bureau of The Associated Press that looking out for the pensioners is his top priority. Companies have so many subsidiaries today, he said, that it's impossible to determine if a firm is socially responsibile.

Thorton Cooper, an attorney for the state's Public Service Commission and an opponent of the constitutional change, says that the state shouldn't invest in companies that have interests in gambling, liquor, tobacco or with those that pollute the environment. We can accept his dislike of the first three, but the fourth might give an investment professional some problems.

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What company, or what individual, for that matter, doesn't pollute the envrioment? Every time we take a trip in our automobiles, some gases go into the air that it would be better to eliminate completely. And so we make a trade-off, not eliminating automobiles but striving to create models that don't pollute as much. Only companies that are certified environmental scofflaws should be on the state's no-buy list.

Gambling, liquor and tobacco are another matter, given that excessive use of all three affect the public adversely. West Virginia would be hard-pressed to argue that its stated concerns for the public health are anything but empty talk if it insists on profiting from the very practices it preaches against.

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