By Appalachian Voices staff
State legislatures in Appalachia are using their authority on health care reform, taxes, education, and energy and environmental policy to accomplish their own agendas, and sometimes, to rebuke federal policies. Here is the latest from our region’s representation.
As he prepares to leave office this fall, Gov. Bob McDonnell will have to justify a number of recent decisions, including a $64 annual tax on owners of hybrid vehicles that was added to a transportation funding plan. The governor’s long-time promise to establish Virginia as a “Green Jobs Zone” by incentivizing companies to create green jobs has not been met. He, along with Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli and the state legislature, did little to improve Virginia’s voluntary renewable portfolio standard, which so far has benefited electric utilities more than Virginians, or to stimulate the clean energy sector.
In February, at the behest of Alpha Natural Resources, the Commonwealth Transportation Board approved a four-lane divided highway that will use mountaintop removal coal mining to flatten steep ridges in southwest Virginia along a route proposed by the coal company. The proposed route is under review by the Federal Highway Administration.
With the decline of domestic demand and coal production in central Appalachia, the West Virginia General Assembly has stepped up its attempts to prop up the industry. Controversial legislation to weaken water quality standards for selenium pollution unanimously passed the state House of Delegates shortly after Judiciary Chairman Tim Miley described the bill as “an important one for the coal industry.” If the bill becomes law, West Virginia regulatory agencies will attempt to disregard federal recommendations and set their own standards for how much selenium can be discharged from surface mines.
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s administration has dodged promises to strengthen mine safety and enforcement, delaying action on critical measures including expanding training at coal-mining operations that violate state regulations, improving methane monitoring systems, setting coal dust standards and increasing fines for violations.
As the 2013 session comes to an end, the Kentucky General Assembly and Gov. Steve Beshear remain divided on a number of high-profile issues. In early March, however, Beshear signed a bill to promote biomass-generated electricity that was passed unanimously by the General Assembly. The governor is now considering whether to sign or veto a bill legalizing industrial hemp farming in Kentucky that passed in the final minutes of the session. Legislation introduced in January to enact a Renewable and Efficiency Portfolio Standard again failed to gain traction in the House of Delegates.
Speculation has begun over the class of likely candidates, including former U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler and Kentucky’s House Speaker Greg Stumbo, to replace the term-limited Beshear in 2015. Prospective candidates, including former Democratic state auditor Crit Luallen, are beginning to court coal miners. Luallen spoke to the United Mine Workers of America in late March, telling the crowd that “the first thing that we have to do is work with all our heart to protect the jobs that we have. Coal matters in Kentucky, and coal will matter in Kentucky as long as there is coal to be mined.”
Since 2013 began, pro-industry voices have dominated the North Carolina state legislature. With majorities in the House and Senate, the General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory have taken hard stances on unemployment, education, healthcare and energy issues. In January, the introduction of the Government Reorganization and Efficiency Act, a bill that would eliminate the members of several environmental and public commissions, created a groundswell of polarization and was called an “unprecedented power grab” by Democrats. The bill passed the Senate in less than 42 hours, but has been delayed after changes were made in the House.
The latest threats to North Carolina’s commitment to clean energy include bills in the House and Senate to repeal a 2007 law mandating utilities meet a modest percentage of demand with renewable sources — a backstep that lacks support primarily due to North Carolina’s rapidly expanding solar industry.
As recently as 2008, Democrats held the governorship and a majority of both the House and Senate, but in recent years the legislature has shifted dramatically to the right. Now in control of the governorship and a legislative supermajority, Republicans hold 97 of 132 seats across both chambers. Gov. Bill Haslam’s close ties to the oil industry have kept his administration’s regulations against fracking to a minimum and he has remained neutral on bipartisan legislation to ban mountaintop removal coal mining in the state.
Other legislative actions include a bill to transfer administration of the state’s Water Environmental Health Act from the Department of Environment and Conservation to the Department of Commerce and Insurance. This bill passed both House and Senate committees. Recently, Rep. Sheila Butt and Sen. Mike Bell introduced legislation that would make it illegal for Tennessee to implement or associate with anyone who is practicing “sustainable development.”