Mountain State Spotlight on Coal Communities

West Virginia lawmakers created a commission to help struggling coal communities. Gov. Jim Justice still hasn’t appointed members.

Lawmakers who pledged to help communities devastated by the decline of coal passed just one bill creating a commission to facilitate grant funding. Eight months later, Gov. Jim Justice hasn’t appointed a single member.

Al Anderson has lived the majority of his 82 years in Scotts Run, a five-mile hollow encompassing thirteen small, unincorporated former coal communities close to Morgantown.

“You don’t get much help here. That’s the main thing,” he said.

Scotts Run is a shadow of what it once was when coal dominated the area’s economy. But Anderson, who works at the local mining museum, was hopeful when he heard lawmakers were coming to town in November 2021 to get his and his neighbors’ input on how to improve the community.

A year later, despite the press releases and listening sessions and a report with more than eighty recommendations, nothing has come of the committee’s work. 

Lawmakers only passed one bill from the committee, and even that has gone nowhere: the legislation created a commission to which Gov. Jim Justice hasn’t bothered to appoint any members eight months later.

“We were let down,” said Delegate Ed Evans, D-McDowell. “They gave us a committee and it did nothing,” he said.

Delegate Mark Dean, R-Mingo, who chaired the committee, couldn’t think of anything more he had wished the committee had passed. 

“There’s lots that we didn’t get to but the ones we did were the cornerstone ideas that most of the recommendations related to.”

Report leads to almost no legislation

In the past fifteen years, West Virginia has lost over 40% of its full-time coal mining jobs. The loss has devastated families and hollowed out once-thriving communities as former miners have struggled to find new careers that support themselves and their families. 

That was the backdrop when House Speaker Roger Hanshaw announced the creation of the workgroup that turned into the House Select Committee on Coalfield Communities in June 2021. 

“These members will now have the authority and the flexibility to go into communities, communicate with officials at all levels, and really determine what our coal communities need to succeed so they can come back to us with solid recommendations and then drive those solutions home to the full Legislature when we come back next session,” he said in a press release.

But not very much was driven home. After a listening tour, lawmakers wrote a report that recommended the Legislature help build thriving downtowns in coalfield communities, enact policies that lead to increased wages (including replacement wages for former coal miners) and support vocational training for in-demand jobs. It recommended providing help for miners not receiving health benefits and expanding mobile mental health services.

Yet the committee only proposed four bills out of those eighty-three suggestions. The only one to become law created a commission — the Coalfield Communities Grant Facilitation Commission — to match grants that former coalfield communities receive. Many grants require applicants to demonstrate that they have 10-20% of the amount that they’re asking for, and the commission was meant to give local economic authorities state funds in order to do that.

The grant matching bill was passed in March, and Justice is responsible for appointing the members of the commission. But he has made no appointments and has not even registered the commission with the Secretary of State’s office. The commission’s first report to the Joint Committee on Government and Finance is due on Dec. 1, later this week.  

When asked if Justice’s inaction bothered him, Dean said, “It does and it doesn’t. Right now it’s not funded, so doing it right is more important than doing it quickly.”

A Justice spokesperson did not respond to interview requests, but Dean said that he had spoken before with the person in charge of putting the commission together.

Evans said that it was his understanding that the commission was supposed to have already gotten funded with available money from this year’s budget. 

Unclear when and if community input will result in legislation

Now, lawmakers may get another shot at implementing their recommendations. House of Delegates spokesperson Ann Ali said that the select committee is expected to continue next year. Ali said Speaker Hanshaw intends for the committee to address the infrastructure issues that they highlighted in their report.

But it’s unclear what role the feedback provided by people like Al Anderson will play. Despite having meetings in Moundsville, Logan, Welch, Beckley, and Pursglove, speaking with hundreds of West Virginians, their ideas don’t appear to have played a large role in shaping the legislation that the committee came up with.

The one bill that became law was based on input from economic development authorities, not regular community members who attended the listening tours.

When Dean was asked what community input factored into the bills that didn’t pass, he had trouble naming anything.

“I can promise you that there was plenty more we wanted to do,” committee member Tony Paynter, R-Wyoming, said. He said that the Legislature stays so busy that it’s hard to even get bills on the agenda.  “Sometimes the good ones fall through the cracks.”

The fact that lawmakers have achieved little for coal communities since they showed up in his town a year ago doesn’t surprise Anderson. 

“Most times when people come out and they make their speech, you never see them again for two years until they’re running for House delegate,” he said.