The State Legislature completed its 2011 regular session at midnight on Saturday, March 12, having passed some very good legislation for Jefferson County but having failed to deal with what I believe to be the two most critical statewide issues.
The two most important statewide issues before us in my view were regulation of natural gas wells and providing a mechanism for funding what is generally known as "other post-employment benefits" (OPEB). We did nothing on either.
OPEB refers primarily to health care for people who are under the state's retirement plans. While it has always been a given that the state owes retirees their pensions, it wasn't until a few years ago that the Government Accounting Standards Board ruled that governments were also responsible for the health care of retirees.
Estimates vary as to the size of our unfunded liability for these costs. They range from a high of about $8 billion to a low of around $3 billion. Even the lower figure is a lot of money.
The House of Delegates and the Senate each came up with a plan to pay down the liability over anywhere from 25 to 40 years. Each house passed a bill incorporating its idea. But no compromise could be found, so we did nothing.
The need for stronger regulation of natural gas results from the discovery a few years ago of what is called the "Marcellus Field." This is a rich field of natural gas underlying western New York, western Pennsylvania and almost all of West Virginia. Of West Virginia's 55 counties only Jefferson, Berkeley and Greenbrier do not sit over this field, which is anywhere from 6,000 to 9,000 feet deep.
Most observers of extractive industries expect our state to experience an economic boom as a result of the Marcellus find. Some think that boom might be similar to that in the coalfields between 1880 and 1950. The state's population tripled during that period, to about 2.2 million, and in 1950 there were 120,000 active coal miners. (Since then our population has dropped to 1.85 million and there are only about 15,000 active coal miners.)
Because the gas is so deep it requires a particular kind of drilling to get it. There are greater environmental concerns about this type of drilling than the drilling we've had heretofore.
The Senate passed a drilling regulation bill I regarded as weak. The House Judiciary Committee strengthened it considerably and the House Finance Committee (I'm on that committee) endorsed the House Judiciary version with no changes. But the bill was never brought to the House floor for a vote.
Both of these two issues are complicated and controversial. It takes time to work out compromises on such issues. Most delegates and senators wanted to deal with both successfully. I think our failure to act buttresses my contention that our regular session, constitutionally limited to 60 calendar days, is too short. Had our session this year been a 90-day one. I'm convinced we would have produced effective responses to both of these great challenges.
Perhaps we'll take a week or two in a special session to deal with one or both of these questions. I hope so. But it would have been better to decide them in the regular session.
Meanwhile several bills which I think benefit Jefferson County were passed.
They include the Chesapeake Bay bill, the Brownfields bill, the Affordable Housing bill and several bills affecting the horse racing industry.
The Chesapeake Bay bill provides money for sewage treatment plants in the Chesapeake Bay watershed to be upgraded to federal government standards. Thirty-five years ago the U.S. Congress passed a federal law declaring the Chesapeake Bay to be a "national treasure" and setting the goal to make it pristine. Congress passed another law in 2000 ordering the Environmental Protection Agency to get to work implementing it.
All six states that drain into the Chesapeake are required to upgrade treatment plants to a higher set of standards than those for the rest of the nation. It's going to cost several hundred million dollars to bring the treatment plants in the portion of West Virginia that is in the Chesapeake watershed up to these standards. The eight counties of the Eastern Panhandle and Potomac Highlands plus a portion of Monroe County (which drains into the James River) are in the Chesapeake watershed. With the passage of this bill the ratepayers in the Chesapeake watershed will not have to bear the entire cost.
The Brownfields bill resulted from the controversy over the Old Standard Quarry last year. That brownfield development project was approved by the state even though the site was not zoned for development. While the passage of this bill will not resolve the problem with Old Standard it mandates that any future brownfield project must conform to local zoning.
The Affordable Housing bill provides an affordable housing component to any local impact fee ordinance. Since Jefferson County is the only county in our state with impact fees at the moment, it's the only county presently affected by the bill.
Six bills passed affecting horse racing, and I was the lead sponsor of four of them. The most important are a bill revising the "rules of racing" and one affecting the thoroughbred breeders' fund.
West Virginia's rules of racing had not been revised for many years and were outdated. The bill that passed was the result of over a year of negotiation between the many parties that make up our horse racing industry, and I think it's quite a good revision.
The breeders' bill takes about $300,000 from the breeder's fund (which accumulates about $7 million each year for awards to owners and breeders of West Virginia bred horses) to administer the fund. The fund has been abysmally slow in getting money to the folks it owes because the West Virginia Racing Commission has not had the money to hire the types of employees needed. This $300,000 will solve the problem and those owed money will now get it in a timely fashion.
Some breeders thought the approximately $300,000 was more money than was needed to properly administer the fund. Initially the Racing Commission wanted to deduct $375,000 from the Breeders' Fund for administration. After much thought, negotiation and investigation, we decided on 4.5 percent of the fund with a cap of $305,000.