Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, listens to a budget presentation from state officials on Wednesday. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography

A state office created more than two decades ago to help economic development in coal communities could be repurposed as a public relations shop for the industry to improve its image and recruit coal miners. But first, the governor’s income tax cut plan clears a hurdle in the House but is struggling to win over the state Senate.  

House passes massive tax cut, but it’s ‘DOA’ as-is in the Senate

Gov. Jim Justice’s plan to cut personal income taxes by 50% has sparked fierce debate in the Capitol, a trend that continued on Wednesday as the House of Delegates debated potential amendments to the plan. The larger question at play: Who exactly should benefit from tax cuts in West Virginia?

House Democrats tried to amend the bill to eliminate income taxes for people making less than $80,000 a year, saying the change would benefit 72% of West Virginians — and would be more effective than Justice’s plan at helping the middle class.

“We need to be fair, and help the people who need the help,” the amendment’s sponsor, Del. Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, said.

Republican legislators disagreed, arguing that the Democrats’ proposal focused too heavily on people with lower incomes while offering little to high-income earners. The amendment ultimately failed and the full bill, HB 2526, passed the House shortly after.

The income tax cut’s fate in the Senate is less certain. Republicans in the chamber are still bitter about their public fight with Justice over a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed them to cut property taxes on personal vehicles and other business expenses — a plan they vastly prefer to Justice’s income tax cuts.

The bad blood was evident when Justice’s Secretary of the Department of Revenue testified before the Senate Finance committee on Tuesday and was attacked by several members. Sen. Rupie Phillips, R-Logan, called Hardy’s justification of the tax and revenue cut “phony math.” Sen. Randy Smith, R-Tucker, accused Hardy of maligning multiple senators and lying to their constituents during the fight over the amendment.

“One thing that will get me ready to fight more than anything is when someone questions my integrity,” Smith said. “I hate no one, but I have lost a lot of respect for a lot of people over what happened.”

At the heart of the acrimony is an issue of trust and a legitimate question of whether the state can weather the cuts. It’s complicated by the fact that last year, Hardy and Justice said that the state couldn’t afford a Senate-proposed property tax cut plan, but are now saying they can afford a massive income tax cut. How is that possible, and what changed? Hardy told lawmakers if the plan doesn’t work, the state could tap more than $700 million Justice proposes putting in a new rainy day fund, or roll back the income tax cut under a future administration. 

Today on MetroNews’ Talkline, Sen. Finance Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, said the bill, as it stands, is “DOA,” or Dead on Arrival. —P.R. Lockhart and Ian Karbal

Office created to spur post-coal economic development could become industry PR shop

Chris Hamilton, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, at a legislative hearing last year. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography.

West Virginia lawmakers are advancing a bill that would put a state agency meant to help coalfield communities develop post-mining economic plans into the business of promoting the coal industry.

The Senate Committee on Energy, Industry, and Mining recommended passing a bill yesterday that would expand the powers of the Office of Coalfield Community Development. The office, which has been inactive for about 10 years, was created to help communities affected by surface mining figure out how to be economically viable in ways that don’t solely rely on coal.

The original bill creating the office in 1999 said that communities affected by surface mining have unique challenges. It charged the office with working with county commissions, state, local, county and regional development authorities, landowners and civic, community and business groups and interested citizens to develop plans for post-mining economic development. 

But the only person speaking to legislators on this year’s bill was the top coal lobbyist in the state. The bill requires the office to help the industry recruit new coal miners, and develop a public relations campaign to “educate the public on the economic and societal benefits provided by the coal industry.” It would be funded through the portion of coal severance taxes paid to the state.

Chris Hamilton, president of the West Virginia Coal Association answered the committee’s questions on the bill. He told lawmakers that the bill aimed to remove pressures on the supply-side of the industry, as well as “push back a little bit” against the Biden Administration’s efforts to move the nation towards renewable energy. “Currently there’s not a voice from the state of West Virginia that’s engaged in those regional and national debates,” he said. —Alexa Beyer

Related: West Virginia lawmakers created a commission to help struggling coal communities. Gov. Jim Justice still hasn’t appointed members.

P.R. Lockhart is Mountain State Spotlight's Economic Development Reporter.

Ian Karbal is a Report for America corps member, and the state government watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.

Alexa Beyer is the Environment and Energy reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.