Opinion: At the Capitol

By Phil Kabler, Charleston Gazette-Mail

For the West Virginia Press Association

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — In what was anticipated to be the first full schedule of monthly legislative interim meetings of the year instead shared the spotlight with the continuation of the ongoing special session, focused this time on a tax bailout intended to keep a Pleasants County power plant open.

Legislation to exempt FirstEnergy’s Pleasants Power Station from about $12.5 million a year in business and occupation taxes passed the Legislature in just two days.

The bill passed the House and Senate by wide margins, with proponents saying the tax break is necessary to keep the circa-1970s coal-fired power plant open beyond a planned 2022 shutdown, preserving 160 jobs at the plant, as well as jobs at West Virginia coal mines that supply energy to the plant.

Joe Powell, president of the Pleasants County Commission, told delegates that the plant’s closure would be devastating to the community.

In a statement, Gov. Jim Justice urged legislators to pass the bill (HB 207), saying, “This bill is so incredibly important because we’re talking about saving people’s jobs – good coal jobs – and saving entire counties that would be devastated if this plant were to close for good.”

After passage of the bill, legislators learned that, as part of its filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, FirstEnergy is seeking $3.1 million in reparations from Bluestone Energy – one of several coal interests owned by Justice — over a disputed coal deal.

While the bill passed by wide margins in both houses, critics argued that the tax break will not save the plant in the long-run as market forces, including falling costs for natural gas and renewable energy sources, will accelerate closures of coal-fired power plants.

On the House floor, Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, expressed those concerns, stating, “If I am right, then HB 207 is not a job-saving bill. It becomes just another corporate giveaway.”

In the resumption of the special session that was called primarily to address education reform, and has met on-and-off through May and June, the Legislature also passed a number of clean-up measures, including two concurrent resolutions required to give the governor’s office authority to issue the remaining $800 million of road bonds authorized by voters who approved the Roads to Prosperity amendment to the state Constitution on Oct. 7, 2017.

The resolutions authorize the sale of a second round of $600 million in bonds this year (HCR104), and the final $200 million of bonds to be sold by June 30, 2021 (HCR 105).

House Finance Chairman Eric Householder, R-Berkeley, said adopting the resolutions now will give the Justice administration flexibility to take the bonds to market when interest rates are lowest.

“The governor could do it a week from now. He could do it two months from now,” Householder said.

The first $800 million of bonds, to fund nine highways projects that are either underway or ready to go the bid, went to market in May 2018, and with favorable interest rates, raised a total of about $915 million for road construction.

While the continuation of the special session forced cancellation of several scheduled meetings, a number of July legislative interim meetings focused on issues involving highways construction and maintenance:

— Transportation Secretary Byrd White told legislators there have been “misconceptions” among the public and some media outlets over what projects are to be funded under Gov. “Roads to Prosperity” road-building initiative.

White, who was not in state government at the time, said that during efforts to promote passage of the $1.6 billion road bond amendment, color-colored charts were displayed at public events, and posted on state websites.

He said those charts showed projects to be funded with color-coding to indicate whether the funding would come from Roads to Prosperity bonds, federally funded GARVEE bonds, or state Parkways Authority bonds, to be paid with future West Virginia Turnpike tolls.

He said the charts also included a number of “candidate” projects – projects the Division of Highways recognizes as needed, but ones that currently have no funding – which appeared on the displays without a color.

“At the time, they were not funded and not promised,” White said. “They were simply candidate projects.”

— White said Highways is also gearing up efforts on secondary roads maintenance, including committing $35 million of 2018-19 budget surplus that the Legislature moved to state Road Fund earlier in the year for repairing slides around the state.

He said that since Justice directed Highways to put greater emphasis on secondary roads, the division has paved 982 lane miles, repaired 193 slips, graveled 2,800 miles of unpaved roads, and patched 7,000 miles of roads.

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