Capital Eye: Gosh, What a State of the State!

We’re less than a week into the 2017 legislative session, and things are already crazy!  Read on for our summary of just some of the things that happened in the first 3 days under the golden dome.


Gosh, What a State of the State!
by:  Gary Zuckett

Beth Vorhees of WV Public Broadcasting tweeted mid-way through Governor Justice’s first State of the State address that it was the most “entertaining ever.” I believe that was even before he proposed cutting every dollar of state funding for our Educational Broadcasting Authority (West Virginia Public Broadcasting) – all $4.6 million! This and other cuts to education and arts were proposed after the governor told us we had to protect our support for dog and horse racetracks, which are allotted more state money than all the total arts and educational cuts he proposed.

Our new governor’s “aw shucks” down-home style belied the seriousness of his message – that we’re deep in a “dog mess” of a budget crunch and that cuts alone will not get us out of trouble. His approach of suggesting short-term tax increases on both consumers (1/2% sales tax) and business (2/10% gross business tax) to upright our budget makes sense. His bold proposal to raise the gas tax and other auto fees to fund a bond sale that would put people to work fixing our aging roads and bridges deserves serious consideration. This would need approval by both the legislature and voters. Of course, the devil is always in the details.

He “Loves Trees, Streams and Fishing” and stuff like that…

The environment got an honorable mention, but just in passing as the governor told us that the Department of Environmental protection would have to “Stop saying NO” to poor old industry. He didn’t mention the DEP’s stealth deletion (at the request of big oil and gas) of an air quality permit rule that would make oil and gas pay attention to how much of a nuisance their compression stations were to the local neighborhoods. This was right after new DEP Secretary Caperton also fired the Environmental Advocate who evidently was doing too good a job interacting with concerned citizens. Can you say, “Wrong direction DEP!”?

Playing “Chicken” with the Budget

Legislative leadership has declared much of the governor’s ambitious budget D.O.A., so it will be up to them to figure out how to slash $500+ million or invent ingenious ways to raise revenue without calling it the “T word”. This leaves you and me and the rest of our states’ citizens in the middle of a very expensive game of “chicken”. Connect with the WV Center on Budget and Policy’s campaign, and send a message to your lawmakers that we can’t cut our way to prosperity and they need to fund all essential and socially productive functions of our state, no excuses!

Bills, Bills and More Bills

Friday was day three of the 2017 legislative session, and the House is winning the race to introduce the most bills at 334 vs. the Senate’s 261. Of course, the House has nearly three times the number of members so they have an advantage. Many of this first flush of legislation are “rules” bills that have been offered by state agencies to outline how they will implement prior legislation. The rest run the gamut from “modifying the definition of a terrorist act” (SB 66) to restricting safe and affordable access of abortion care (5 bills on just the first day!) to “authorizing the medical use of cannabis-based pharmaceutical products” (HB 2071). It’s a challenge just to keep up with the daily deluge of new bills!

Just because a bill is introduced doesn’t mean it will get taken up by its assigned committee. Committee chairs hold virtual life and death power over which bills they will actually put on their agendas. Many a good (and lots of terrible) bills die through this not-so benign neglect.

Locating the bills affecting your issue is just the start. Then you have to keep track of them as some move quickly and others, as we noted, have their feet set in a bucket of cement. This is where the really well done legislative web page is essential.

Your State Government is Now Live Online

Citizens these days have access to powerful tools to keep abreast of the legislative process. First up is the legislative web page where activists can look up bills introduced, track bills they are interested in watching, see daily committee agendas, and get updates of legislative action. Additionally, most major committee meetings can be listened to online and floor sessions and public hearings can be viewed via live streaming from this site (courtesy of WV Public Broadcasting – remember the governor wants to totally cut their funding!). Take some time to explore this site and you’ll be impressed at what it can do. Call legislative services if you have questions on specific functions – (304) 347-4836.

WV Public Broadcasting (at least for this session) has an excellent half hour show called the Legislature Today broadcast on radio, TV, and streamed online every weekday during the session. They even have an app you can download into your pocket computer formerly known as a cell phone. For political junkies like us, it’s a valuable way to stay current with the two-ring circus under the big dome.

Finally, consider supporting the Charleston Gazette/Mail with either a paper or online subscription during the session. You can view ten articles for free – we’ve linked to several just in this update. They usually have a special offer for new subscribers. We’re extremely lucky here in WV to have the State Capitol’s newspaper independently owned and not part of a national chain with an uber conservative slant. Reader support will help keep it that way!

Become Part of the WV Citizen Action Team!

Speaking of support, I’d be neglecting my job if I didn’t make a pitch for all our readers to become supporting members (or even better – major contributors) to WV Citizen Action or our WV Citizen Action Education Fund. Your support is what keeps us going down here through the marathon that is the WV Legislature and beyond to resist #45’s new swamp cabinet in Washington. There’s a lot to be done, and with your citizen activism and financial support, we make a team with both the people power and resources to stand up and fight back! Consider making a monthly contribution. Thanks for taking time to renew or join now!

You can also join become part of the WV Citizen Action Team as a member of staff. Our Field Director, Ciera Pennington, will be leaving us soon to begin working with our partners at WV FREE.  We’re looking to hire an Outreach Coordinator to replace her, so spread the word or apply today!

Zombie Bills: Bills to Aid Drillers Are Back
by:  Julie Archer

As we anticipated, some bad bills that aid drillers at the expense of West Virginia landowners — bills that were either soundly defeated or stalled at different points in the legislative process in 2016 — are starting to reemerge this session.

“Right to Trespass” for Survey Access

Last year the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill that would give pipeline companies planning the interstate pipeline projects the right to access private property for the purpose of surveying without getting landowner permission. Currently, there are several such pipeline projects at various stages of development that will cross portions of West Virginia. The bill effectively reversed a Monroe County circuit court decision regarding survey access for these pipeline projects — a decision that was recently upheld by the West Virginia Supreme Court.

The pipeline companies had been relying on and citing West Virginia’s eminent domain statute saying it gave them survey access before an eminent domain proceeding had been initiated. That statute says eminent domain can only be for a “public purpose”.

In the Monroe County case, the judge ruled that the Mountain Valley pipeline was not for a public purpose and, therefore, the pipeline company didn’t have a right to survey people’s land without their permission.

This “right to trespass” bill, which has been reintroduced as SB 245, gives pipeline companies who have made application and been assigned a docket number by FERC the right to enter for survey activities.

Re-branded Forced Pooling (AKA Joint Development)

Another bill that has reemerged would negatively affect both surface and mineral owners. SB 244 includes two bills from last year. The first is the majority rules bill, and the second is the “lease integration” bill, which we call the “invisible ink” bill.

The majority rules bill would allow leased tracts for which the driller has leases from only a majority of the heirs to be pooled into units and drilled. It is unclear how the unsigned mineral owner would be paid and whether the surface could be used. So if your cousins sign a lease and you hold out because your cousins signed bad leases, or because you don’t want your surface used for a well pad, you will, it appears, be stuck with your cousins’ lease.

The second part of the bill is last year’s invisible ink bill. Currently, a pooling provision or amendment is needed in a lease to authorize the driller to develop multiple mineral tracts using a single horizontal well bore. And a pooling provision or amendment is needed to state how the royalty from the well or wells  on the pooled tracts will be distributed. If there is already an old lease that does not have a pooling provision, the drillers want a modernizing amendment to allow pooling, without modernizing the royalty from 12.5% to 18% or more. SB 244 takes away a mineral owners ability to negotiate an amendment with modern terms and compensation, or a “no surface use” provision, in exchange for signing. We call this the ‘invisible ink bill” because it assumes that leases have pooling provisions even if there is none in there. Without surface or mineral owner agreement, this bill would allow a surface owner’s land to be used for one of those monster pads for horizontal drilling even if there was a “no surface use” lease. The bill says, “The operator’s use of any surface tract overlying the jointly developed leases shall be permissible for that joint development.”

Simply put, “joint development” is re-branded forced pooling with only the things that are good for the drillers and nothing for anyone else – no due process or compensation, no surface protection, and no recourse against the driller.

Take Action: Tell Senators to oppose these shameful attempts to take away the property rights of West Virginians.

In 2016, the “right to trespass” bill was soundly defeated on the Senate floor, with only 11 Senators voting in favor and 23 opposed, and joint development didn’t get out of committee. This success was largely a result of citizens expressing their outrage and making their voices heard. Please contact your Senators and urge them to reject these ill-conceived proposals once again.

For more on other zombie bills we might see this session, click here.

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