House Democrats’ agenda for W.Va. … such as it is

January 8, 2014 by Ken Ward Jr.

MileyPolitical watchers here in West Virginia are waiting this afternoon to hear exactly what proposals Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin will make in his State of the State address tonight.

But we were treated so far this week to several announcements of what the Democratic leadership in the House of Delegates hopes to focus on during the 2014 session (see here, here and here for the official announcements).

First of all, it was good to see that House Speaker Tim Miley’s (left) leadership team threw their support behind the proposal — championed by the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy and by Senate President Jeff Kessler — for some sort of “future fund” to use fossil fuel taxes to work toward a more diverse economy in our state:

Delegate Kevin Craig, said House leadership concurs with the Senate leadership and sees potential in a future fund that creates a source of revenue generated by the oil and gas industry but which doesn’t increase the cost of producing oil and gas in the state.

“The use of the revenue from the future fund can be for many different activities, but should certainly be utilized in areas that serve as an investment in our state’s future, such as education, teacher salaries, and infrastructure,” he said.

We’ll see how much attention and effort House leaders put toward getting this sort of a bill through and a program implemented.

But if you’re looking for much else from House Democrats in the way of dealing with many of the major issues facing our state’s coalfields — climate change, damage done by mountaintop removal (see here and here), the shifting energy economy and dwindling coal reserves that are greatly slowing Southern West Virginia coal production, or the continuing problems protecting miner health and safety — this week’s announced agenda isn’t the place to look.

Now, I’m not saying that the Legislature’s growing Republican caucus is really doing anything about these problems. But take a look at what the Democrats say in the “energy” portion of their own agenda. First there was this:

“In order to continue our focus on our state’s natural resources, a standing committee on energy is being created so that it can focus solely on all issues related to energy,” Speaker Miley said. “By doing so, it will cause the introduction of legislation to occur that also focuses solely on energy, including several proposals from our leadership team.”

 Delegate Kevin Craig, who is vice president for business development for Natural Resource Partners in Cabell County, will chair the committee.

 “The energy industry is so vital to our state, so it makes perfect sense to establish a standing committee that can direct all its attention to the issues that affect that sector,” Craig said. “I am looking forward to getting to work.”

Just for the record, Natural Resource Partners is the third largest land-holding company in West Virginia, according to the newly updated “Who Owns West Virginia” report, which says of the company:

Natural Resource Partners of Houston, Texas, owns 212,927 acres in nine counties. The company, formed in 2002, is primarily engaged in managing mineral reserve properties and does not actively mine the properties, instead collecting royalties from mine owners.

Then, the Democrats threw in this section, called, “Expedited permitting”:

“The Legislature will review permitting processes and take steps to ensure that permits are granted in a responsible yet expeditious manner so that capital does not sit idle,” Miley said.

“It is imperative that those businesses within the energy sector that need to secure permits for their business activities be able to apply and obtain such permits in a prompt and expeditious manner,” Delegate Craig added. “Any delay in the permitting process only causes money and property to be idle and not be engaged in our local and state economy.”

It would be easier to believe that House leaders were concerned about permit reviews being done in a “responsible” manner if they hadn’t shown us last year what a rush they were in to help the coal industry try to weaken water quality standards for things like toxic selenium. Or maybe, if they didn’t assume that all permits should be issued, and instead really talked about quality permit reviews, rather than “expedited” approval of all permits.

And how about coal-mine safety? Well, having watched Tomblin administration stumbling and state board stonewalling for two years now — two years in which West Virginia again led the nation in coal deaths — you might think House Democrats would have a strong agenda aimed at implementing some of the reforms called for in a new report that they themselves commissioned. Instead, the agenda calls for creating what I guess is a glorified “blue ribbon commission”:

One of the methods to ensure worker safety is the creation of an energy industry health and safety commission, made up of legislators from the House and Senate, to help the Legislature remain vigilant regarding safety concerns with both the coal and natural gas extraction industries.

The commission would meet quarterly and be provided information regarding fatalities and serious injuries that occur in our energy industry in West Virginia.

“The workers in these industries are the most critical component to the economic success of those industries, and the Legislature has a moral imperative to do everything possible to provide them with a safe and healthy work environment,” House Majority Whip Mike Caputo said. “By being kept apprised of these matters, the committee can determine if legislation will be necessary to prevent these accidents.”

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