By Frank Young
As this is written we are but 8 days from the end of the WV legislature’s 2018 regular session. At this stage if things move at all they usually move quickly. A monthly publication such as the Highlands Voice is, at best, always playing “catch up” with the state legislature. It can takes weeks of political posturing to push and pull the lawmaking process along. The first half to three quarters of the legislative session is mostly just that- committee meetings and political jockeying to thrash out some consensus on issues.
Then when something is ready for a vote, rules of the legislature require a minimum of three days of reading and voting on a bill for it to become law. But House and Senate leadership can push for “suspension of the rules” so that big things that most everyone wants can come and go and be sent to the Governor all within less than one day, too. The bills discussed herein are but a legislative snapshot of today- March 1st. Some things could change dramatically within days- or even hours.
WV Environmental Council (WVEC) lobbyists have been most successful so far this session at defeating some terrible legislation.
For example, Senate Bill 270 would have allowed commercial timbering in State Parks. Initially the stated purpose of this bill- requested by Governor Jim Justice on the first day of the session- was to furnish funding via the sale of State Park timber for a backlog of maintenance issues at State Parks. But within days after this bill was introduced there developed a diverse coalition of sportsmen and women, state park advocates, conservation, organizations, professional foresters, impacted communities and volunteer advocates working under the new Save Our Parks (SOSParks) banner. Elected officials including WV Agricultural Commissioner Kent Leonhardt was among those opposed to commercial logging in State Parks.
The result was that an avalanche of more than 16,000 letters, phone calls and e-mail expressions of opposition caused this bill to die in committee before the crucial 50th day of the legislative session. The bill never made it to the floor for a vote in either house of the legislature. This writer observes that the groundswell of public opposition to commercial logging in State Parks rivals that which developed in response to the West Virginia “garbage wars” in the late 1980s and early 1990s and the proposal for a giant pulp and paper mill at Apple Grove in Mason County in the mid-1990s.
Related to failed SB270 is another bill (SB438) that would fund State Park maintenance needs via bonds secured by the State Excess Lottery Revenue Fund. As this is written, this bill had passed the Senate and was under consideration in the House Finance Committee. WVEC supports this bill as an alternative to cannibalizing State Parks to save them.
Another bill, Senate Bill 600, would have directed the WV Public Service Commission (PSC) to lower electricity rates for certain high volume electricity users such as manufacturing and certain commercial facilities, and would have directed the PSC to increase home and small business rates accordingly. The environmental nexus with SB600 is that the lower rates would likely discourage energy efficiency by high volume users of electricity. After passing in the house, the bill was defeated on a 17-17 Senate vote. The bill was successfully opposed by, among others, organizations supporting energy conservation and economic fairness.
Observers noted that Senate Bills 270 and 600 were both promoted by Governor Justice and Commerce Commissioner Woody Thresher as somehow conducive to promoting tourism (SB270) and promoting economic develop (SB600).
SB410 would have established a new position within the WV Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), called the industry advocate. It has not progressed this session. House Bill 2909 would have abolished the office of the environmental advocate within WVDEP. It, too, has not progressed beyond a House committee.
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.
In ending this legislative report I am, sadly, unable to report on any legislative “victories” we’ve had this legislative session other than those based in purely defensive battles- the defeat of a couple of bad bills such as SB 270 and SB600, described above. These bills were defeated because they generated such intense public outrage that the legislature- especially those legislators desiring to be re-elected- could not afford to thumb their noses at giant hordes of outraged citizens.
Why are there no pro-actively WVEC sponsored bills to report as successfully passed by both legislative houses? My answer is simply that the membership of the current WV legislature is not amenable to what most of us would consider reasonable initiatives toward sane environmental policies. This legislature is concerned more with model bills offered by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC is an organization of “right wing” conservative state legislators and private sector representatives who draft and share model state-level legislative bills for distribution among receptive state governments.
Can we ever overcome the current conservative monopoly of the WV legislature? Yes, we can. How? We can overcome only by becoming more effective at electing our political friends to public office than our opponents are.