By Chris Hamilton
In Phil Kabler’s April 26 column, “Next governor will have difficult job,” he points out some of the positive gains made when now-Sen. Joe Manchin was governor of West Virginia, including in the sensitive area of mine safety.
In his eagerness to be critical of the current Legislature (something The Charleston Gazette has made a hobby) he alleges that mine safety laws enacted during the Manchin tenure were rolled back this year. But he failed to hit the “Fact Check” function on his computer.
The easily verifiable fact is that no section of law proposed by the Manchin administration was impacted even remotely by the work of the 2015 West Virginia Legislature.
The work of the Legislature this year on the topic of coal mine safety was limited to four areas of state law:
n Enhancement of the mandatory drug testing program.
n Modification of hundreds of site-specific variances approved over the past decade.
n Creation of new requirements for multiple emergency vehicles underground.
n Modernization to a 45-year-old law for mines with trolley wire to reflect that only a few mines are in operation today that still use trolley wire.
Let’s be crystal clear: none of these provisions were implemented or even addressed while Manchin was governor. Suggesting they did only perpetuates the misnomer that somehow there were roll backs in mine safety.
Kabler also referenced several fiscal accomplishments under Gov. Manchin (i.e. replenishing the Rainy Day Fund, paying down workers’ compensation and pension debts and investing over a billion dollars in water, sewer and infrastructure projects. Additionally, during this period, we were one of only a few states that balanced its budget, improved its bond rating and provided greater financial contributions to city and county governments.
We applaud Manchin’s fiscal conservatism and note that when he was governor, he had a silent but lucrative partner in his fiscal programs — the coal industry.
During Manchin’s tenure as governor, West Virginia’s coal industry generated more tax revenue than any other time in the state’s history. Severance tax collections were at historic levels, nearly tripling overall collections from coal during the six years he served as governor. What’s more, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin — another fiscal conservative — enjoyed record severance collections during his first couple years as governor. Severance collections have fallen only in the last few years, consistent with decreased coal production and the loss of many coal jobs.
Tax revenues from an abundance of new shale gas development have picked up some of the shortfall in coal severance, but State Tax Commissioner Mark Muchow repeatedly has said that it takes a 60 percent increase in gas production to offset a 10 percent decrease in coal production. The revenue differential is that dramatic.
The well-acknowledged fact is that as goes the coal industry, so goes the State of West Virginia. When coal takes a hit — as we are experiencing today — so do local, regional and statewide budgets. That’s why it’s important to all West Virginians that our coal and energy sectors remain strong.
Chris Hamilton is senior vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association.