In June, members of the West Virginia House of Delegates were tasked by Speaker Roger Hanshaw and Minority Leader Doug Skaff with proposing solutions to the decades-old problems facing the state’s coal communities. Beginning in the fall, they traveled from Welch to Moundsville to Pursglove on a five stop listening tour to hear from residents of impacted towns.
Now, a committee comprising most of those members has finished its work with only four bills to show for it.
Many of the ongoing problems in the coalfields identified in the committee’s report — which included dozens of legislative proposals to address issues like struggles with basic infrastructure, a lack of jobs and a need for more educational and professional training opportunities — remain unaddressed. And none of the bills currently come with additional resources or funding to implement them.
“We have a whole list of things that we heard and, unfortunately, we got a late start,” said coalfield committee minority chair Ed Evans, D-McDowell. He noted that while the committee had months of preparation, it met only three times since the legislative session began.
“We were a little bit behind, in my opinion. Hopefully, we’ll have the same committee next year, and we’ll be ready to go, and step right in and get more legislation passed.”
The first bill, passed by the committee in late January, would create a state commission to help coalfield towns file for and access federal grants, opportunities for which are expected to be plentiful following a bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in the U.S. Congress, which designated money billions of dollars for communities impacted by the decline of coal.
At the committee’s final meeting on Monday, members sent three more bills to the full House to address more targeted issues.
One bill would effectively reverse a 2018 West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals decision that made it more difficult for miners with black lung to qualify for disability.
Another would expedite the process for towns and cities to deal with abandoned property, building on legislation passed last year paving the way for that work. But like the legislation from last year, many of the towns, facing budget constraints, would be forced to rely on a state fund created by legislators that has still not seen any funding.
The third bill would create a technical job training pilot program for high schoolers in struggling towns that once had plentiful employment in mines.
All of these bills were originated in the committee, although several mimicked or combined bills that had already been introduced. This means the bills were authored by the committee and sponsored by all members, and can also be sent straight to the full House of Delegates, and bypass the typical committee process.
Like many of the committee’s legislative suggestions, these bills aren’t wholly original, but incrementally expand upon existing programs, or serve as course corrections. And how all of them will be funded is still up in the air.
For example, many of the federal grants that communities will be able to apply for, with the assistance of a state office dedicated to helping them, will require matching funds that many communities simply don’t have — and the committee punted on a solution.
“I’m hoping that [the finance committee], or the speaker, or whomever will be able to come up with some kind of matching money that we can use for grants,” Evans said.
The same would be true of the bill allowing for quicker action on abandoned properties. While communities could get the green light to tear them down faster, opening the land for repurposing, the work requires funding.
When the committee was formed in June 2021, Hanshaw said he expected the panel to “come back to us with solid recommendations and then drive those solutions home to the full Legislature when we come back next session.” On Tuesday, Hanshaw and Skaff both declined to comment and directed questions to the committee’s chair and minority chair.
Some of the issues identified in the committee’s report have been addressed by other bills introduced this session. For example, committee staff identified a bill introduced by Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, aimed at supporting solar energy work on former coal mines. But this measure wasn’t one of the ones that coalfield committee chairs adapted to come from this group, and with the session halfway through, Hansen’s bill has yet to advance from the House Energy and Manufacturing committee where it was sent on the first day of session.
“There’s a lot more that needs to be done,” said committee chair Delegate Mark Dean, R-Mingo.
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