The 2018 West Virginia Legislature: What Happened?

The Big Kahuna of the 2018 Legislative Session was, of course, the teachers’ strike.  Teachers stuffed the Capitol, chanted, sang, waved signs, etc. until they finally got the pay raise they wanted as well as a commitment to progress on improving the Public Employees Insurance Agency.

While the teachers occupied center stage and will be the thing this Legislature will be remembered for, several things were happening (or not happening) off in the wings.

The conservation issue that got the most attention was the proposal to log the State Parks. The original proposal would have allowed timbering in all State Parks.  Faced with substantial opposition, leaders proposed a “pilot project” that would allow timbering in only Watoga State Park.  This got people in Pocahontas County even more riled up without appreciably reducing the opposition elsewhere.

With all the opposition, the bill just stopped advancing.  Legislative leaders are more than capable of sniffing the wind, counting votes, and figuring out what bills have support.  This proposal started falling off committee agendas, etc. and died a quiet death.

While those who support State Parks did not stuff the Capitol, sing, chant, and wave as many signs as the teachers, their efforts were not too shabby.  According to The West Virginia Rivers Coalition, people stuffed the mailboxes of legislators and the governor with at least 16,866 letters to legislators and the governor.  These were only the letters that came about as a result of Parks supporters’ organized efforts.  Many other West Virginians sent letters without being a part of any organized effort. One senator shared that he had received more citizen opposition to this proposal than any other bill this session.

The proposal had originally been advanced as a way to finance maintenance and improvements in the Parks.  The Department of Natural Resources would sell timber and use the money to fix up the Parks.  The Legislature decided to skin the maintenance cat by dedicating a part of lottery revenue to Park maintenance.

Another poorly thought out idea that didn’t become law was a proposal that the utility companies be allowed to negotiate discounts with large industrial users.  The result would have been that residential users would end up paying higher rates to subsidize the discounts to industrial users.  Nobody especially stuffed the Capitol or anybody’s mailbox, but AARP, the West Virginia Environmental Council, West Virginia Citizen Action Group, and the Public Service Commission’s Consumer Advocate all opposed it. That opposition (and the unsoundness of the idea) were enough to defeat it.  It made it to the Senate floor and was defeated when the Senate tied, 17-17. Since it takes a majority to pass, it was defeated.

Bills to establish or abolish “advocates” at the Department of Environmental Protection were introduced and then quickly disappeared.  We currently have an office of Environmental Advocate.  The Environmental Advocate is the link between the people and the agency.  It is supposed to help citizens understand what the Department of Environmental Protection is doing, answer questions, and help citizens interact with the Department of Environmental Protection.  There was a bill to abolish that position.  It didn’t make any progress.

We do not have an Industry Advocate at the Department of Environmental Protection, unless we count the Secretary of the Department and many of the people who work there.  To correct this imbalance, one legislator introduced a bill to create an office of Industry Advocate.  It didn’t make any progress either.

The Legislature did approve a pilot project to allow all-terrainvehicles in Cabwaylingo State Forest.  All-terrain vehicles on public lands have always been controversial.  They can cause damage to trails and plant life and risk bringing, noise pollution, air pollution, and litter.  There is also the very real danger of ATV riders leaving established trails.  Every time they leave a trail, they create a new one, creating a spreading web of damage to the forest floor and increasing erosion. Now we will have a pilot program to allow them in Cabwaylingo State Forest.

One of the biggest legislative disappointments for water quality advocates is the failure of the legislature to even consider the recommendations of the West Virginia Public Water System Supply Study Commission (PWSSSC). The Commission was established by the legislature following the Charleston area water contamination crisis in 2014. The Commission had been charged by SB373 (in 2014) with making recommendations related to five specific tasks. Recommendations were submitted to the Legislature in 2014, 2015, 2016 and 2017. The 58 page 2017 report- assembled by the 5 PWSSSC working groups- is designed to avoid a repeat of the 2014 Charleston water contamination crisis. But, as it did with the 3 previous PWSSSC reports to the legislature, the legislature has ignored this most recent report and recommendations.  Some observers are afraid that it will take another similar water crisis to get the legislature’s attention.