Editorials, Opinion

Coal towns left behind by empty promise

One of the few good things to come out of the West Virginia Legislature this past year has been nothing more than an empty promise.

In 2021, the Legislature cobbled together a workgroup that toured the state’s coalfields, holding listening sessions and townhalls in former coal towns whose heydays are far behind. According to Mountain State Spotlight, that committee put together a list of 83 suggestions to revitalize these forgotten-but-still-hanging-on areas for the 2022 legislative session. All that work produced only one passed bill. 

During the regular session last spring, lawmakers passed HB 4479 to establish the Coalfield Communities Grant Facilitation Commission — a nonprofit body that would help former coal towns come up with matching funds to secure federal and private grants. It was a direct response to the millions of federal dollars earmarked for communities hit the hardest by coal and power plant closures.

The fickle thing about many grants is that they may require matching funds or other guarantees as evidence that the money won’t be squandered.

That’s where the Coalfield Communities Grant Facilitation Commission was supposed to come in: Not only would it provide those matching funds, but it would also connect grant-seekers with grant writers and economic development specialists from West Virginia’s top academic institutions.

The law creating the commission became effective June 8, 2022. But the Coalfield Communities Grant Facilitation Commission never materialized.

Within weeks of HB 4479’s passage, lawmakers were already commenting no funding had been allocated for the commission, even though the bill’s sponsors  repeatedly said they were told  it would get as much as $250 million from the “backside” of the state’s budget — presumably, that $1 billion-plus surplus we keep hearing about.

The secretary of economic development — currently, Mitch Carmichael — is the only member of the commission designated by law; the remaining 11 positions are to be appointed by the governor “by and with the advice and consent of the Senate.” In October, West Virginia Public Broadcasting reported Carmichael said “he hasn’t formed a commission, hasn’t found out about funding and doesn’t have a timetable.” When Mountain State Spotlight interviewed Al Anderson of Scotts Run — one such forgotten coal town — at the end of November about the lack of progress, the commission was still nothing more than words on a piece of paper.

Six months, four special sessions and three interim sessions later, neither Carmichael nor Gov. Jim Justice has taken the time to appoint any members to the commission so it can begin its work. In the meantime, coalfield communities have lost out on numerous grant opportunities. It’s past time for lawmakers to follow through on their promise: Justice must appoint the remaining members, and the Legislature must prioritize allocating funding for the commission during the upcoming legislative session.