Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Local News

January 13, 2013

SW.Va. lawmakers ready to take on tough topics as legislative session begins

TAZEWELL, Va. — Utility rates, coal and natural gas severance taxes, drug testing of welfare recipients, education, transportation and the Commonwealth’s budget are issues local lawmakers hope to tackle as Virginia’s legislative session begins.

Delegate James W. “Will” Morefield, R-Tazewell, said giving coalfield counties better access to the coal and natural gas severance tax revenues remains an important issue.

“I plan on introducing a bill that 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 use for home heating use. I would like to thank Tazewell County Attorney Eric Young for his assistance on this bill.”

Sen. Phillip Puckett, D-Russell, said creating a uniform method for how these severance taxes are counted is a priority.

“The biggest local issue we have is the gas and coal severance issues,” Puckett said. “I am trying to get legislation everyone can agree on. Our coal and gas counties in the Southwest have ordinances that aren’t as specific as they could be about how the severance tax is computed, so we are trying to get a uniform method of calculating that.”

Morefield said he is also planning to introduce a bill aimed at reducing the number of fines to coal haulers.

“As part of this bill, weight enforcement cannot require a coal truck — the load on which does not rise above the calibration mark of the truck's bed or can be shifted so it does not rise above the top of the truck's bed — to be actually weighed,” Morefield said. “This bill reinforces the current statute to reduce the number of fines that coal haulers are receiving.”

Puckett said transportation and Gov. Bob McDonnell’s recent proposal to increase the sales tax and doing away with the gas tax will also impact residents across the Commonwealth.

“They are looking at increasing the wholesale level of gasoline, which would be tied directly to the price at the pump as well as the governor’s bill tied to an increase in the sales tax and doing away with the gas tax almost entirely,” Puckett said. “That would supplement the Commonwealth Transportation Trust fund to the tune of $800 million. We got a first look at the details on Wednesday, but there are a lot of issues. What concerns me is that it takes a good deal of general fund money for transportation. That means that somewhere down the road, in order to increase this level, we could run out of money for things like education and public safety.”

Morefield said he will not support any increases to the gas tax, although he agrees changes need to be made in how transportation is funded.

“We have to start looking at ways to better fund transportation, but I would not support a bill to increase the gasoline tax,” he said. “Identifying and eliminating waste within government agencies has helped significantly and this must continue.  An increase in the gas tax would have a detrimental impact on the majority of Southwest Virginians during this type of economic environment. Food and energy prices have increased significantly to a point where many cannot afford to live. This is due to the lack of a feasible and realistic national energy policy. It is my hope during this session that we will adopted a transportation plan that is good for all of Virginia.”

Morefield said he also plans to introduce a bill that would reduce utility bills by 20 percent to low-income seniors during the winter.

“Utility rates are projected to rise steadily with extreme environmental regulations increasing on utility companies that use coal for electrical production,” Morefield said. “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.

Puckett said education in Southwest Virginia is another issue he hopes to address, especially due to recent budget cuts on the state and federal level.

“We also have a few charter bills specific to our Southwest localities,” Puckett said. “Those will mainly be dealing with the indirect effects of education fees depending on what the governor does with the budget. We need additional funding from K-12 education, and we are hoping to get some of that. The health care piece is also important. We have to have some sort of health care exchange. The federal government is going to be doing that from what it seems like.”

Morefield said health care and budget cuts will have “a significant impact on Southwest Virginia.”

“Gov. McDonnell has proposed a 4 percent across-the-board cut for state agencies,” Morefield said. “Our delegation will identify and attempt to minimize the impact to the best of our ability. One reason the governor is proposing the cuts is in order to fund certain provisions of Obamacare. I will be meeting with the Southwest delegation over the next several days to discuss in detail what budget amendments will impact our region and what amendments we will collectively address to our colleagues in the House and Senate.”

Morefield said he also plans to introduce a bill mandating drug testing for those applying for certain welfare benefits as well as a bill that would allow any person to hunt on private lands on Sunday in Virginia, with the permission of the owner of the lands.

— Contact Kate Coil at kcoil@bdtonline.com

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