A bipartisan working group of West Virginia House Delegates held one of several Coal Communities Comeback Plan meetings in Pursglove, Monongalia County on Nov. 10, 2021. Photo by Emily Allen.

Last summer, House of Delegates leaders from both parties announced a key new panel of lawmakers they promised was “dedicated to developing proposals to help revitalize West Virginia’s communities.”

The group traveled the state, hosting meetings and asking residents for ideas on how to help communities struggling from the coal industry’s decline.

Seven months later, as the 2022 legislative session starts, a report on the committee’s work hasn’t yet been released, and the panel’s work so far hasn’t publicly produced anything resembling a long list of proposed bills for lawmakers to consider.

It appears that the only idea that panel members have reached consensus on is creating a state fund that would provide matching money so coalfield communities could tap into the massive federal spending from the infrastructure bill and potentially other federal programs.

Delegate Mark Dean, a Republican from Mingo County and co-chair of the group, said that the members have that proposed legislation “in the tank,” but declined to discuss more specifics until the panel has another meeting.

Delegate Ed Evans, D-McDowell, and fellow members have encouraged community members at their meetings throughout the state to apply for federal money available to help energy communities transition. That would include $38 billion in funding that a federal task force has pulled from other agencies to assist 25 energy-dependent communities, including those in West Virginia. Lawmakers also have encouraged local governments to plan for infrastructure projects, following a $1 trillion package signed late in 2021, and yet-to-be-announced grants through the Appalachian Regional Commission.

“We’ll feel like we’ll get the lion’s share of some of this money,” said Evans, a co-chair of the committee.

But community members like Kris Mitchell in Boone County have said it’s hard for counties like hers to apply for federal funding where there are local matching requirements.

“Frankly, most of southern West Virginia doesn’t have any skin to put in the game,” Mitchell, who directs the Boone County Community and Economic Development Corporation, said in November. “Things have been gone for too long.”

One nagging question is whether, even if lawmakers create a program to help local communities match federal grants, the state will actually appropriate any money to that program during the budget process.

There’s reason to be skeptical. Lawmakers tried not so long ago to create a fund earmarked for economic diversification efforts in some of the same West Virginia communities, plus others that had also relied on declining extractive industries. Patterned after similar programs in other countries and states, lawmakers created the “Future Fund” in 2014 at the urging of then-Senate President Jeff Kessler and after much prodding from the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy.

But while lawmakers created the “Future Fund” as a program, they never actually put any money into it. Instead, they set up a series of triggers so that no money would be set aside unless a separate state Rainy Day Fund reached a certain level.

“They knew explicitly that this fund would not have any money in it for the foreseeable future,” said Ted Boettner, who was executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy at the time. “It wasn’t an accident.”

Today, the fund exists in state law, but there’s no account, according to the West Virginia Investment Management Board, which would be responsible for overseeing the account’s investments once it gets money. 

Still, Boettner said he’s optimistic that West Virginia has progressed in some ways. Ten years ago, he said, not everyone acknowledged West Virginia had a problem. 

“Before you make a plan or anything it helps to know you have a problem,” said Boettner, who is now a researcher for the Ohio River Valley Institute. “We’re at a better place in terms of recognizing that, I think.” 

No shortage of ideas

After the panel was formed last year, lawmakers held five meetings throughout the state, in both the northern and southern coalfields.

Attendees gave lawmakers enough to think about — withering water and sewer infrastructure, dilapidated buildings with no clear ownership, widespread addiction and subpar opportunities for job training and employment. 

In Scotts Run, Monongalia County, longtime residents like Mary Jane Coulter and Al Anderson even wrote their lawmakers a letter, requesting clean sewer drains and paved roads.

“We have people come from Charleston every other year,” Anderson said. “They come to speak at our street fair, and then we never see them again.”

Some lawmakers like Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, already have plans to introduce their own bills. Hansen’s ideas include legislation to repurpose retired coal-fired power plants and a bill that he’s introduced before, to encourage the creation of solar energy jobs on former coal mines. But Hansen acknowledged that efforts to plan for the future have been thwarted during almost every legislative session by coal industry allies.

“Nobody knows quite how long coal is going to continue to be mined and burned for generating electricity, but I think there’s a general recognition that that’s fading out,” Hansen said.

Evans said despite this, he’s hopeful.

“Any bill that gets written, there’s always going to be people against it,” he said. “So we’ll have to fight against some of the die-hards, both Republican and Democrat. I feel that legislation that we put forth that helps communities — how could anybody vote against that?”

Originally, the group was scheduled to meet during this weeks’ interim session, but leadership postponed that so lawmakers could focus on a series of economic development bills not directly related to coalfield revitalization efforts, but that Gov. Jim Justice is expected to tout in his State of the State address.

Dean said legislative staff plan to complete and make public a draft report by Friday, Jan. 14. The panel will meet next week, he said.

Emily Allen is a Report for America corps member, and the community watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.