CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The first West Virginia state Legislature controlled by the Republicans in 83 years left some people pleased and others aghast.
— Chris Hamilton, chairman of the West Virginia Business and Industry Council and vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said he is “very pleased with all aspects” of the recently completed session.
— Steve White, director of the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation, said, “From a working family perspective, it was the worst session ever in my 20-plus years.”
— Corky DeMarco, executive director of the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association, said he was left wondering if the state “will ever be able to show the world that yes, ‘We are open for business.’”
— Gaylene Miller, state director of the AARP in West Virginia, was pleased because the organization’s top legislative priority passed.
The four business and industry leaders were asked for their reactions to the recent session as a follow-up to agendas they outlined early in the session. The four were on a business and industry panel hosted by the West Virginia Press Association in February. They talked about their respective agendas, goals and concerned for the Legislative session.
With the session complete, the budget planned and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin still giving final consideration to some proposed legislation, the WVPA asked the four to review the session in comparison to their earlier hopes and goals.
Hamilton was happy with the Legislature’s repeal of a 2009 law that required utilities to use renewable energy sources; passage of a bill that gives the Legislature a say in how West Virginia complies with federal climate rules; and passage of the Coal Jobs and Safety Act, which he said updates and streamlines some of the state’s mining laws.
He characterized numerous tort reforms as “very moderate changes,” and said they are “all designed to make West Virginia a little more competitive.”
“All in all, it was a very productive session,” Hamilton said. “You get the feeling this legislative leadership team is just getting started and they’re committed to doing what they can to move the state forward.”
The West Virginia Business and Industry Council is comprised of more than 60 trade associations and businesses. The coal association represents the state’s coal industry.
White, of the Affiliated Construction Trades Foundation, said, “There’s nothing I saw that was done to benefit the average person unless you believe that transferring money or rights from people to companies is beneficial because that seems to be the gist of the session.”
The foundation advocates for 20,000 construction workers around the state. White spent 60 days trying to fend off the Republicans’ effort to repeal the prevailing wage law, which sets rates workers are paid on state-funded construction projects.
Although the Legislature didn’t repeal the law, it made major changes that create uncertainty for thousands of families and hundreds of contractors, White said.
One change exempts projects valued at $500,000 or less from the law. White said more than half of the 800 publicly funded construction projects awarded last year were valued at $500,000 or less but they represented only about 10 percent of the $1.1 billion total value.
He believes roofers will be hurt the most by the changes in the law, as well as heating, ventilation and air conditioning companies and their employees. “And we think it will hurt the taxpayer in the end,” White said.
DeMarco, of the oil and natural gas association, spent the session trying to gain approval of legislation that would compel holdout landowners to join gas-leasing agreements with their neighbors. Advocates call it “fair pooling” and “lease integration.” Opponents call it “forced pooling.”
Prior to the start of the session, the trade group commissioned a study that shows pooling in the Marcellus Shale would result in the development of 98 more wells per year, more gas production, hundreds of millions of dollars in additional tax revenue and thousands of jobs.
DeMarco said Del. Woody Ireland, R-Ritchie, chairman of the House Energy Committee, “did a magnificent job” bringing the various interested parties together.
But the legislation died in the House on a 49-49 vote on the last night of the session. “Crazy things happen on that last night,” DeMarco said.
* There was talk of a poll, although the trade group never saw it and didn’t have an opportunity to try to debunk it.
* Twelve House Democrats originally voted for the bill. On the last night 11 voted against it and one was absent.
* “There were members of the Republican leadership team that didn’t vote for this bill,” DeMarco said. “We only picked up one Republican who voted for it on the last night. I’m suggesting that with a 49-49 vote, the Republicans could have brought it across the line with one vote, even if the 12 Democrats stayed at home.”
“What’s most disappointing is, this is not just about the oil and gas industry,” DeMarco said. “The industry can file partition suits and get this done. This is about telling people who may want to invest because of the resources here that we can’t get our act together and we may, over time, strand gas that could be used for manufacturing or whatever.”
That means jobs will be lost that could keep kids from leaving West Virginia, he said.
“If we could do this right we could put four or five crackers here,” DeMarco said, referring to the multi-billion-dollar complexes that convert ethane into ethylene, the raw ingredient for a variety of products. “But if we can’t produce this resource economically and not strand the resource, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to show the world that yes, ‘We are open for business.’”
Miller, of the AARP, is pleased the legislature passed the senior advocates’ top priority: the Caregiver Advise, Record and Enable Act.
The bill gives hospital patients the ability to name a caregiver, provides that the caregiver will be notified when the patient is going to be discharged, and gives the caregiver instructions for managing the patient’s medications, injections and other needs.
Miller believes the bill, which awaits Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin’s signature, will result in better outcomes for patients and fewer unnecessary hospital readmissions.
AARP West Virginia also is interested in helping people save for retirement while working. Last year it unsuccessfully pushed for passage of a bill that would create Voluntary Employee Retirement Accounts. This year the Legislature agreed to study the issue.