Coal Tattoo

Sixty days: The state of our state and the coalfields


Photo by Tom Hindman

In a few hours, we’ll hear from Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin about his views on the State of the State and his plans for dealing with a budget deficit and for his final year as governor.

Already, though, the governor and his staff  have done a lot to telegraph a bit of what he may say regarding the coal industry. In an interview with the Gazette-Mail’s Phil Kabler for Sunday’s paper, for example, there was this:

Tomblin hopes a myriad of job training opportunities directed at southern West Virginia, particularly for laid-off miners and their families, will eventually lead to a revitalization of that hard-hit region.

“The mining jobs may not be returning, and you can always go back to that if they do, but it’s good to have a little college training under your belt,” he said. “Coal in southern West Virginia has had highs and lows for years, and it seems to be hit particularly hard this time.”

And then in today’s paper, there was this from communications director Chris Stadelman:

He has some exciting new things, not only in developing our workforce, but in diversifying our economy.

It will obviously be encouraging to hear Governor Tomblin talking more directly and — perhaps, forcefully — about the need to diversify coalfield economies here. But two things remain bothersome about the context in which he’s doing it.

First, there’s this business about how “the mining jobs may not be returning” and how “you can always go back to that if they do”. I’m not aware of any forecasts that suggest any grand resurgence of the coal industry in Southern West Virginia. It’s popular among the industry’s political supporters to suggest all manner of actions by elected officials — and the end of the Obama administration — might make that happen. But Governor Tomblin isn’t doing anybody in the coalfields any favors by tipping his rhetoric even a little bit in that direction.

Second, there’s this idea that’s been reported several times about how the state’s current budget problems were somehow unanticipated. When former Gov. Joe Manchin was winning political points with business leaders by cutting their taxes, there were those who warned this would happen. When forecast after forecast from coal experts projected declining production in Southern West Virginia, there were those who warned this would happen. And even the current low price of natural gas was something that wasn’t entirely unanticipated. State officials knew it was projected to drop — it just dropped even more than they thought.

Maybe the governor’s rhetoric and context will change dramatically tonight. After all, former Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller both made strong statements about West Virginia’s relationship to coal and the need to reassess the industry late in their careers. Maybe Governor Tomblin is going to call on his fellow West Virginians to “embrace the future.”

Governor Tomblin, though, faces a Republican-controlled Legislature that is itching for fights with Democrats and unions about worn-out issues like right-to-work and prevailing wage, and even about who should be sitting in the state Senate. Coal industry lobbyists, meanwhile, are considering a push to lower mining taxes.

It doesn’t take a political genius to know that a ton of time over the next 60 days will be spent on political fights that don’t get the state anywhere.