Charleston Gazette - January 12, 2010

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia's leading lawmakers said Tuesday that protecting the coal industry will be their priority during this year's regular legislative session, which starts Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, said the Obama administration and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are taking a "harsh stand" against coal.

"They have a whole new attitude about the coal industry," Chafin said Tuesday during the West Virginia Chamber's 2010 Legislative Issues & Outlook Conference in Charleston. "We just have to stand united."

House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, suggested the Legislature establish a select committee to react to federal legislation that affects the coal and energy industry in West Virginia.

"We need to be prepared to address those impacts on the state level," Armstead said. "We are all concerned about the future of coal."

The legislative leaders said the state relies on the coal industry for jobs and coal severance taxes.

"We absolutely have to have that revenue," said House Majority Leader Brent Boggs, D-Braxton. "If we don't have that revenue, we'll be in a world of hurt in West Virginia. This is not a partisan issue. It's a West Virginia issue."

Senate Minority Whip Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, said the state must continue to invest in clean-coal technologies.

"That's good for our coal industry and exports right now," Barnes said. "We're exporting a tremendous amount of coal right now."

Barnes also said the state must continue to reduce business taxes and remain "fiscally prudent" -- a recommendation embraced by other legislative leaders.

"We haven't let ourselves be pulled down into the partisan bickering we see in Washington," Boggs said. "That's not happening here. We have some differences, but at the end of the day we work closely together.

"We have taken responsible steps," Boggs added. "Tough steps. Hard steps."

Armstead noted that West Virginia lost 25,000 jobs last year. More than 67,000 people were unemployed.

"I think we need to look at bold changes to our tax structure and our regulatory structure," he said.

Chafin said the state must take a hard look at its personal income tax. Some states, such as Florida, don't require residents to pay personal income taxes.

"We want people to move to West Virginia who make money, who want to make money," he said.

About 300 state business leaders attended Tuesday's conference at the Charleston Marriott.