Here in West Virginia, there’s a lot going on up at the statehouse. Some might say that, judging from the headlines, it’s hard to find a lot of progress, at least if you consider progress bringing people together to work for a better future for our state.
First, there’s the movement by some lawmakers to greatly weaken the landmark chemical tank safety and drinking water protection law passed after last year’s Freedom Industries spill and the resulting water crisis. Then there’s the promise from the West Virginia Manufacturers Association that they’re going to keep pressing for what the West Virginia Rivers Coalition calls the “the most drastic weakening of statewide drinking water protections” since the state established water quality standards in the 1960s.
It’s easy on the one hand to almost dismiss this stuff, saying things like, “West Virginians voted for these guys, so they have to live with it,” or even — something I hear increasingly from younger West Virginians — that they’re tired of the politics here and would rather just move away. It’s just as easy to pretend that issues like the re-emergence of the push for a “right-to-work” law aren’t really that important anymore.
But I can’t escape the conclusion of former Gazette columnist William Miernyk, writing many years ago — the last time right-to-work was being pushed:
The major objection to right-to-work legislation, the bottom line, if I may be forgiven the use of the abominable cliche, is that it is the most divisive kind of legislation imaginable. The only way residents of the Mountain State can hope to cope with its myriad problems is by cooperation among all segments of our society. The best way I know to ensure that such cooperation will not be forthcoming is to pass a right-to-work law.
That’s why, really, this week is ending with what West Virginians should really see as perhaps a small bit of victory, of people who are thinking about the future coming together — even if they didn’t really mean to — to voice opposition to more divisive proposals.
I’m talking, of course, about yesterday’s public hearing on the West Virginia Coal Association’s centerpiece of legislation for this year’s session. As described in our Gazette story this morning:
Representatives of working coal miners and from the state’s environmental community turned out Thursday to oppose a legislative initiative from the West Virginia Coal Association, saying the bill wrongly weakens protection for workers and water quality.
Leaders of the United Mine Workers union spoke out against the provisions of the “Coal Jobs and Safety Act” during a House Energy Committee public hearing, as did representatives from the Sierra Club and the West Virginia Environmental Council.
UMWA officials don’t like the Coal Association’s efforts to roll back important workplace protections for coal miners. Environmental groups don’t like the industry’s insistence on weakening water quality standards that protect us all. As Jeremy Richardson of the Union of Concerned Scientists said:
This bill is a real effort to divide the environmental and the labor folks. It’s saying that we can try to keep the environment clean or we can protect jobs, and that’s a fundamentally false dichotomy. What we’re seeing here is the labor and environmental communities both coming out and opposing this bill.
Newly sworn in Senate President Bill Cole speaks to fellow members of the West Virginia Legislature in Charleston, W.Va., on Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Charleston Daily Mail, Craig Cunningham)
It’s hard to believe that some of this push toward divisive issues isn’t really all about a different sort of future — about the future of political campaigns, and the money that the Career Campaign Consultants know that these issues can help bring into the state from the likes of the Koch Brothers — far more than it’s really about the future of real West Virginians.
Still, if you watch and listen at the Capitol, you hear all sorts of things.
For example, some Democratic leaders, now that they’re the minority party, want to grumble around about process … about how the majority isn’t giving adequate time for debate, or voting on things they haven’t seen. Whatever. Come on now, are they really pretending that the recent Democratic leadership didn’t play around with “committee substitutes” that almost no one had seen before they were voted on, or that major pieces of legislation concerning natural gas drilling and coal-mine safety weren’t negotiated in private with the industries those bills affected? Have they forgotten how the state’s Democratic governor thought an industry-only discussion amounted to a “stakeholder” meeting on the chemical tank bill last year? And while some of the Democratic minority’s plaintiffs lawyers-legislators may have really good arguments about who would be hurt by GOP-sought changes in West Virginia’s legal system, if those particular legislators are really so interested in public health and safety, why are some of them, such as former House Speaker Tim Miley, co-sponsoring bills to weaken that chemical tank safety law passed only last year?
Like during the public hearing earlier this week on HB2004 — the bill aimed at ensuring the state DEP can focus on little except protecting the coal industry when it writes a plan to comply with EPA’s Clean Power Plan — when we heard Ben Beakes, a lobbyist for Alpha Natural Resources, repeat over and over that lawmakers should “stand strong” against Obama and the EPA. It’s as if the West Virginia Legislature stands strong enough it somehow has the power to repeal basic laws of physics and geology that are driving climate change and the decline of Southern West Virginia’s coal industry.