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Coal at the Capitol: Industry touts legislative insiders

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The coal industry has long enjoyed a core group of supporters under the Capitol dome, but now the industry says it has five aggressive friends to whip together votes in the legislature.

During the West Virginia Coal Symposium, industry officials hosted a panel of five state lawmakers. Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said there were about 30 or more members of the Coal Caucus, but the five before the symposium Thursday night represented an unofficial set of leaders of the informal caucus.

Each of the members not only support coal, but also work directly for the industry. One-by-one each stood up and delivered a message of support for the industry.

Hamilton said "it's a hell of a lot easier" when someone passionate about the industry not only listens, but seeks industry support on legislation. Hamilton said in addition to passion, these delegates bring a knowledge of the industry. He said sometimes a "teacher" or "librarian" delegate speaks up to a coal-related bill and might not even know "the difference between a dragline and a drag queen."

"It makes a world of difference between having a pro-coal legislator that you work with that can get some things done for you from time to time, but you also have to understand that individual probably has a host of issues that are important to him that he feels obligated and compelled for a variety of reasons to get done or try to get through the legislative processes," Hamilton said. "These gentlemen before you have the same passion and care about our industry as much as we all do."

A love of coal and a disdain for state or federal obstacles such as the Environmental Protection Agency bind the five across political party.

"We're going to get to page 18 in the legislative handbook yet with the help of these individuals," Hamilton said. "Page 18 is on how you pass a bill, a page that our industry, I don't think, has ever gotten to very often over the years. There's a hundred ways to defeat legislation, there's only one way to pass it. … That's getting 51 votes in the House and … 18 in the state Senate."

Kevin Craig, D-Cabell, was the first member introduced by Hamilton. Craig heads the House Natural Resources Committee and was first elected in 2000. Hamilton called Craig the "dean" of the class of coal delegates. He works with Natural Resource Partners.

Craig said his experience in the permitting side of the business gives him the knowledge to know where lawmakers can "knock down" roadblocks to permitting or provide industry with economic certainty in the permitting process.

"If you take the time to do your homework (in the legislature), you can be successful," Craig said. "If you don't you're probably (going to) walk out and say ‘we lost another one, I don't know how.'"

Craig told symposium attendees, "If you're not involved in the process, you've got to be prepared to take what you get." Craig said he and others knew there were friends of coal in the Legislature, but they lacked the element of gathering together and hashing out coal issues, something the caucus now does once per week.

Troy Andes, R-Putnam, is an employee of Alpha Natural Resources, formerly Massey Energy. He has been with the legislature since 2006 and is the minority chair of the House Economic Development and Small Business Committee.

"Troy has been a one-man coal caucus within the House of Delegates and the Republican Party since he started, he truly has," Hamilton said. "… Fortunately, this year, he has a little additional help since the House has added a dozen-plus members of the minority party."

Republicans picked up 11 seats in the 2012 general election and hold a total of 46 of 100 seats.

Hamilton applauded Andes' formation of the New Majority Fund, a political action committee that aimed to get other Republicans across the state elected.

"We're just so appreciative of that personal effort," Hamilton said.  

Andes said the coal association really has "a winning team" in the Legislature now.

"In my seven years of service in the Legislature, I've never seen the industry represented as effectively and efficiently as it is this session," Andes said, adding that the Coal Caucus is largely what drove the change.

Andes said the Coal Caucus has allowed pro-coal legislators to educate the rest of the body on coal issues. As an example, Andes cited the selenium bill that the House passed unanimously March 8. He said the Coal Caucus was able to meet with about half of the legislative body on the bill before opponents were able to "flood the halls of the Capitol with misinformation."

Andes also touted the major gains of the Republican Party and said that would bode well for the West Virginia coal industry.

"Today we have 46 Friends of Coal in the Republican Caucus," Andes said. "Thanks to the 2012 election we grew from 35 members to 46 members. That translates to more seats on important committees."

Rupert Phillips, D-Logan, works at White Armature Works, an electric motor repair company in Southern West Virginia that serves the coalfields. Hamilton said Phillips championed the passage of the selenium bill that recently passed the House.

"(The West Virginia Coal Association) gave me the car to drive," Phillips said regarding the selenium bill. "I put it in four wheel drive and we took it to the top."

Phillips said he pushed hard, but that the selenium bill moved through the House even faster than he had imagined.

"I said coming over here two years ago, ‘I'm going to make some friends, learn the process, make some friends,'" Phillips said. "I need 50 friends. I'm going to see how many friends I've got tomorrow."

Phillips was referring to the House vote on the selenium bill. If the vote count is, as Phillips put it, indicative of friends, he has at least 99 of 100 – one member was absent one the unanimous vote for the selenium bill.

"It's a good win for the industry," he said. "I'm not going to slow down, I'm not going to give up. Let's draw a line in the sand. … D.C., EPA, I don't care what they think. This is West Virginia. Let West Virginia run West Virginia."

Phillips added, "This is our year."

Josh Nelson, R-Boone, is a new member of the House of Delegates. Nelson said he started to work as an hourly employee for Alpha Natural Resources, though he now works for GMS Mine Repair and Consultants in the safety department.

"About two Januarys ago, I was coming off the section at Allegiance Mine for Independence Coal Company and I was getting pretty irritated with the fact that Washington had been so hard on the industry," Nelson said, explaining the beginnings of his candidacy. "I felt the state could do more to stand up and say ‘no' to the federal government using the tenth amendment."

Nelson said he went to Charleston that day, still wearing his "stripes," or coal uniform and filed to run as a Republican.

Soon, he found himself on the Mike Huckabee Show and attracting other attention to the "War On Coal" message against Washington regulation of the industry. Nelson said what he now brings to the table is a "people factor" to legislation, always reminding that people affected by a bill could mean empty stomachs for West Virginians.

The last delegate to speak Thursday was Randy Smith, R-Preston. He works for Alliance Coal as a coal miner and a few years ago he became a section foreman. This year, he has earned a seat in the West Virginia House of Delegates.

"There's nobody like coal miners, I tell you that right now," Smith said, thanking the industry representatives in attendance. "… I thank each and every one of you that donated to my campaign. Those of you that didn't get a chance to, you're going to get another chance in about a year."

Smith said he's not "real politically correct" and let's people know what's on his mind.

"People say ‘what in the world is an underground coal miner doing in the House of Delegates?' I can assure you, I've asked myself that many times in the last four weeks," he said.

Smith said he takes particular joy in telling people at the Capitol he is a coal miner. He said he really enjoys watching environmental lobbyists come into his office and then note all of the coal mining apparel and paraphernalia in his office.

"The good thing about environmentalists, is whenever they are one-on-one, they're cowards," Smith said. "I'm going to be straight with you. If they don't have the press there to back them up and 30 or 100 of their buddies yelling and screaming, they're like kitty-cats and they're on my turf then. And I get to give them my opinion that I've been holding back for several years about the way they treat coal miners."       

Smith said that is one of the highlights of his new job. He said he also has enjoyed sharing his expertise from years in the coal mines.

"I am who I am," Smith said. "I love representing you people and I can tell you that I represent you to the best of my ability and with a passion like no other. The coal industry has been good to me and I want to be good to the coal industry. I want to give back to the coal industry what the coal industry gave to me. You people should be proud of yourself for being part of it, creating jobs. You all create jobs, you don't create problems and I truly appreciate that."

"I'm proud as can be to represent you people and I think I'm going to be back in two years if I don't get arrested with an environmentalist."

One of the Democrats on the panel joked with Smith that he would bail him out for another run.

"See we're reaching across the aisle here," Smith poked back. "That's as bipartisan as you can get. I'm sure being a Democrat, though, he's going to use somebody else's money."