By Mike Tony
March 15, 2023 - With 15 minutes left in West Virginia’s 2023 legislative session, the House of Delegates sent a bill to the governor that would reboot an economic development office to coordinate federal grant expenses, expand coal assets and come up with an educational program to support the state’s coal industry.
The House squeezed in signing off on Senate revisions to House Bill 3303 in an 84-10 vote.
HB 3303 would expand the powers of the Coalfield Community Development Office with the aim of giving West Virginia’s shrinking coal industry a boost.
The bill would “offer assistance” to expand “continued operation and reliance on West Virginia coal” for coal mine operations, coal-fired electric utilities and other coal assets in West Virginia.
The Coalfield Community Development Office would “develop an educational program and policy materials” to “educate the public” about what the legislation says are “economic and societal benefits provided by the coal industry,” including coal-fired electric generation.
State code established the Coalfield Community Development Office under the Department of Commerce, allowing the office secretary to appoint a chief to administer the office.
Under state code, the office has the power to set up a procedure for determining assets that could be developed in and maintained by a coalfield community.
The Coalfield Community Development Office may prepare master land use plans, per state code, and is required to prepare annual reports describing economic development initiatives and prospects for further development.
But in 2021, the Department of Commerce and the then-state Development Office, a forerunner of the state Economic Development Office, could not identify any such reports dating back to 2010 in response to a Gazette-Mail Freedom of Information Act request. The state could only identify reports filed by the Office of Energy on the Office of Coalfield Community Development’s behalf from 2010 through 2015.
West Virginia Coal Association Chris Hamilton in January spoke in support of Senate Bill 157, legislation in the Senate with the same provisions, and said the Office of Coalfield Community Development has “all but become dormant” in the past decade. He said SB 157 would not only revitalize the office, but make it more functional.
The office is required to consult with state mining and reclamation officials to determine whether newly proposed surface mines or changes to surface mining operations could lead to property reclamation opportunities to develop community assets.
Under HB 3303, the governor would appoint and set the salary of a director for the office, who would be responsible for hiring assistants and clerical staff as needed.
HB 3303 would cost the state an estimated $300,000 per year, according to a fiscal note submitted by the Department of Commerce.
The Coalfield and Community Development Fund would have to incur new expenses in personnel for hiring a director, assistant director and a clerical employee, per the fiscal note.
The fiscal note reported a designated revenue source would be needed after roughly 6.5 years, citing a cash balance of approximately $1.95 million in that fund and incoming revenue from blasting fees that is minimal due to a decrease in surface mining in West Virginia.
HB 3303 also would task the office with coordinating an industrial worker recruitment and training program in conjunction with the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training and WorkForce West Virginia to address what Hamilton has lamented was a coal industry manpower shortage.
The Senate Finance Committee revised HB 3303 to terminate the Office of Coalfield Community Development on June 30, 2032. A Senate-approved floor amendment from Senate Finance Committee Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, would move the office under the Department of Economic Development. Tarr attributed the move to a state code conflict.
The amendment also would give the governor until July 1, 2026, to appoint and set the salary of the office’s director. Tarr said the move would keep the state from having to appropriate money into the office for the next three years, adding the office already had funding available.
HB 3303’s lead sponsor is Delegate Charlie Reynolds, R-Marshall, a railroad safety inspector.