Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

November 25, 2012

Local Virginia lawmaker looks to tackle tough issues in 2013

KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

TAZEWELL, Va. — Coal and natural gas severance taxes, decreasing utility bills for seniors and drug testing for welfare recipients are all issues Delegate James W. “Will” Morefield, R-Tazewell, said he is looking to tackle during the 2013 General Assembly session in January.

Morefield said the November election proved there is a definite concern for the coal industry in Southwest Virginia.

“Democrats and Republicans in Southwest Virginia spoke loud and clear on election night that coal is lifeblood of the economy in Appalachia,” he said. “Many individuals will say that market conditions are the sole driver for creating unfavorable conditions for the coal industry, but I can attest this is simply not true. I work directly with the industry, and I am convinced the war on coal is stronger than ever. I met with an Asian steel producer nearly one month ago, and they explained to me their company is willing to invest $1 billion in our area if they could just receive permits to mine coal. For every coal job created an additional six jobs are created. The math is simple and for our region to miss out on such an opportunity simply because a company cannot receive a permit is very sad. The next few years will be very challenging with significant cuts at the state level as national spending spirals out of control and we see significant increases in the cost of fuel, electricity, and food.”

As a result, Morefield said one of the bills he is looking to introduce at the beginning of the 2013 General Assembly session would allow for more local usage of coal and natural gas severance taxes.

“The bill would amend the coal and natural gas severance statute to allow the coalfield counties to utilize coal and natural gas severance funds for the purpose of building natural gas infrastructure,” Morefield said. “Our region is blessed with so many natural resources that unfortunately we cannot utilize at the local level. The bill would give counties in the coalfields an additional revenue source to build natural gas infrastructure that would include commercial use and residential for home heating use. I would like to thank Tazewell County Attorney, Eric Young for his assistance on this bill.”

Morefield said natural gas infrastructure is becoming increasingly important in Southwestern Virginia.

“The majority of natural gas in Virginia is produced in Southwest, but almost all of the resource is exported to other parts of the country,” he said. “Our goal should be to focus on utilizing more of our natural resources at the local level. It is disappointing to me that very little effort has been made over the past 50 years to provide opportunities for the Southwest Virginia to utilizes its natural resources locally. There are tremendous benefits to natural gas because of its abundance and price competitiveness.”

However, Morefield said coal is still essential to the region.

“In regard to electrical production, I believe our primary source of fuel should be coal because of its BTU competitiveness with natural gas and its impact that it has on the regional economy,” Morefield said. “Natural gas plays a more appropriate role for transportation, residential, and commercial use. Many utility companies have experienced technical issues with natural gas turbines where they are burning much more natural gas than originally anticipated. The reality is that due to over-burdensome environmental regulations utility companies are being forced to shut down coal-fired power plants or convert to natural gas. The conversion cost associated are extremely expensive and ultimately passed to the consumer in the form of higher utility bills.”  

Additionally, Morefield said he believes energy costs will continue to rise until environmental regulations on utilities are removed.

“A bill to provide a 20 percent reduced rate on utility bills during winter months for senior citizens that are at least 60 years of age and are classified as low-income,” Morefield said. “Utility rates are projected to rise steadily with extreme environmental regulations increasing on utility companies that use coal for electrical production. Low-income senior citizens are the most at risk with utility rate increases, and it is my hope that such a bill would provide relief to those who need it most.”    

Morefield said the second piece of legislation he plans to introduce will help lower electric rates for low-income seniors.

“Currently, there are no other alternatives in the works that I am aware of,” he said. “Utility rates in this region are lower than most areas of the state and the country for that according to recent studies, but the reality is median incomes are significantly lower in Appalachia when compared to other regions. The majority of calls that I receive are from senior citizens struggling to pay for their utility bills. Although, I am well aware that senior citizens are not the only ones suffering, I wanted to focus on a bill that would help those most likely unable to help themselves and present a bill that would realistically have the best chances of passing.”   

Morefield said he is also proposing another bill that would mandate drug testing for welfare beneficiaries when the session begins in January.

“There is not a single individual or family in Southwest Virginia that has not been impacted by drugs,” Morefield said. “It is no secret that a large number of those receiving welfare benefits are drug abusers. I am currently researching a number of bills that have been introduced in the past with similar goals, but failed. I hope to have a final draft prepared after I have determined what language would have the most likely chances of becoming law. We are still working on specifics of the legislation. There are a number of constitutional issues that must be addressed, but we hope to have the final language in the coming weeks ahead. There is no question that our region is faced with a drug epidemic, and it is common knowledge that a significant portion of the population are using public assistance to fund their drug habits. In regard to a grace period, we do intend to include a process that would encourage them to recover.”

— Contact Kate Coil at kcoil@bdtonline.com