WV lawmakers have ideas, but few bills, for coalfields

A legislative committee is recommending more than 80 measures to help West Virginia’s depressed coal communities, but has so far only reduced one of them to a bill.

Reports recommendations include providing grants to West Virginia communities for infrastructure development; provide high-speed Internet access to all residents of West Virginia; encouraging the redevelopment of former coal mines for purposes such as affordable housing, agriculture or even renewable energy; assist in demolishing or redeveloping derelict properties; provide tax incentives for small tourism businesses; expanding educational opportunities; and increase support for people recovering from addiction.

But so far only one proposal of this report has been written into a bill for lawmakers to consider. The bill, which would create a statewide commission to help city and county governments access federal grants, has yet to be introduced.

The report was built largely from input from more than 200 West Virginians who attended five public hearings across the state, hosted by a group of lawmakers elected to represent coal communities. On Monday, these lawmakers formed a select committee on the coal communities, essentially increasing the effort and giving it more bite. They are able to favorably recommend the passage of certain bills concerning the coal communities, just like any other committee.

Delegate Ed Evans, the committee’s minority chair, said there are more bills to come, but he doesn’t know when. It was unclear on Wednesday when the committee planned to meet again.

“These bills will reflect the things that people have reported to us on listening tours,” said Evans, D-McDowell.

The committee only three weeks old it remains to produce concrete legislation based on this report, if they want to see bills adopted this year.

Delegate Mark Dean, R-Mingo, chairs the 15-member committee. Dean did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, some of the report’s recommendations, such as “increase resources provided to coal communities to remedy dilapidated buildings” and “provide grants…to address infrastructure problems”, are already theoretically addressed by laws. in force. This includes a statewide fund for the demolition of abandoned properties, which was established last year without any funding. West Virginia also already has a “future fund” that city and county government officials can apply to for projects related to economic development. The legislature approved this fund in 2014but it has been organized in a way that makes it difficult to get money into the fund.

The report’s recommendations are also reminiscent of bills lawmakers introduced but never passed.

While in the report, lawmakers recommend creating more modern economic opportunities in the coalfields, a Invoice to encourage more solar power jobs at former mine sites died in committee in 2019. Another recommendation, asking electric utilities to use the most energy-efficient options possible, recalls Senate Bill 600 in 2018. This bill would have spurred power companies to come up with energy-efficient options, and state senators voted it down that year.

The report’s recommendations are not only similar to missed legislative opportunities – they also reincarnate ideas that have not materialized in the past. Take the redevelopment of former mining sites and the use of the West Virginia National Guard in former mining areas, two ideas that have come and gone from the offices of the previous governor.

State officials have spent years touting the Hobet surface mining site not only as a thriving mine, but also as a poster boy for reclamation. But today, most of the initiatives announced for Hobet, including a National Guard training site, are not there. At the committee’s first meeting in Logan County, attendees requested updates and assistance with redevelopment plans around the former Hobet site.

In Monongalia County, where lawmakers met in the Scotts Run area outside of Morgantown, residents had a list of infrastructure-related demands for their delegates.

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