Southwest Virginia lawmakers push legislation to boost a struggling region

By: - February 11, 2019 5:01 am

The Virginia State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Virginia Republican state Sen. Bill Carrico has a long-running reputation as a fiscal and social conservative with little tolerance for vice or tax increases.

So why did the former state trooper from Grayson County carry legislation this year to open the door for casino gambling in Bristol and for counties to levy new cigarette taxes?

The answer stems from the same reasoning that saw a significant chunk of the Republican delegation from Southwest Virginia — although not Carrico — break ranks with the GOP to vote with Democrats to expand Medicaid a year ago: They represent rural communities in the mountainous 9th Congressional District that suffer from economic distress.

‘The economy and all things related’ 

Twenty-five counties and eight cities in western Virginia are listed as part of the territory encompassed by the Appalachian Regional Commission. Of those, four counties — Buchanan, Dickenson, Lee and Wise — are classified by the federal agency as economically distressed.

The unemployment and poverty rates tend to be worse in southwestern and southern Virginia than in the state as a whole, especially when compared to the prosperous communities of Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and Richmond.

Southwestern Virginia’s economic struggles explain why Carrico and other lawmakers who might not otherwise carry bills that could legalize casinos and create new taxes find themselves doing just that.

“Sometimes we have a little different agenda than even some in our own party,” said Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Washington. “When it’s all said and done, the economy and all things related to the economy are easily the number-one issue.”

Much of the prosperity gap between Southwest Virginia and the state’s urban and suburban areas is a function of a century of near-total reliance on the coal industry for jobs and economic development.

“The economy here was based for so many decades on coal mining,” said Jonathan Belcher, executive director of the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority. “As that industry has declined, the efforts to diversify and replace an industry that had the dominant economic role that coal did is a unique challenge.”

Since 2010, coal’s decline accelerated as the industry was hit by a wave of bankruptcies and idle mines. Global demand for Central Appalachia’s high-quality coal has increased over the last two years, but it’s not been enough to restore the industry that was once Southwest Virginia’s dominant employer.

Efforts to diversify and grow new jobs have occurred in coal’s shadow, and even when new economic development deals are announced, they can’t match coal mining’s average salary of $85,000, Belcher said.

With fewer jobs on offer, many young people have moved away for better opportunities elsewhere. As a result, the population in coal-producing counties has declined and gotten older. The Weldon Cooper Center projects that many of Southwest Virginia’s counties, though not all, will continue to lose population through 2030 and even 2040.

Plus, the topography of these mountain counties has historically made infrastructure a challenge. Many manufacturers don’t give the region much of a look because it’s difficult to find flat places to build and the twisty mountain roads make exporting goods tough.

With southwestern and rural Virginia falling farther behind, lawmakers who represent those areas are trying innovative legislative remedies. West of Democratic Del. Chris Hurst’s Blacksburg-centric district, Southwest Virginia is represented exclusively by delegates and senators belonging to the Republican Party, so higher taxes and growing the welfare safety net aren’t solutions likely to win support even among the regional caucus.

Bills to spur job creation

Instead, lawmakers are carrying bills aimed at boosting economic development and creating jobs through a variety of means.

That includes bills carried by Carrico and others to authorize Bristol and other cities meeting certain criteria to hold a referendum on casino gambling.

“My argument has been all along, about alcohol and gambling bills, that I never really felt it was our place to tell localities or carve out certain sections for things that may be controversial to people because of religious beliefs or stances,” Carrico said. “That needs to be left for the people in the locality it affects the most to decide.”

Carrico’s bill was incorporated into another by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth, and the combined measure passed the Senate earlier this month. It has been referred to the House Rules Committee.

Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, is carrying another bill to create an authority that would encourage development of new energy projects.

The bill, which passed the House last week and has been referred to the Senate Committee on Commerce and Labor, would create the Southwest Virginia Energy Research and Development Authority. The authority, composed of 11 members appointed by the governor, the Speaker of the House and the Senate Committee on Rules, is charged with supporting development of pumped storage hydropower projects and “energy storage generally” and promoting development of renewable energy on brownfields, including abandoned mine sites, among other goals. 

“For years and years in Southwest Virginia, energy was coal, and that’s it,” said O’Quinn. “And it’s going to continue to play a big part in the energy mix. But energy means a whole lot of different things. To potentially create an energy talent pipeline in that part of the state would be a great way for people to stay in the area.”

Del. Will Morefield, R-Tazewell, is carrying a bill that creates a process for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to develop an elk hunting license. A herd of Rocky Mountain elk were released in 2012, and while the game department continues to work on growing the population, local and state officials already are anticipating the potential revenue generated by visiting hunters.

Creative Commons via Pixabay.

“It’s our hope that people who are spending thousands of dollars and going on big game hunts out west will start going to Buchanan County,” Morefield said. “Tourism is the future of distressed areas like that, and I think that giving them an opportunity to expand those avenues of increasing tourism is something we need to support.”

Morefield, who went to college in Texas, said his move back to his native Tazewell was motivated by his desire to “make some effort to help revive a dying area.” Last year, Morefield successfully carried a bill to create an income tax incentive for new companies to locate in Southwest Virginia, Southside Virginia, the Eastern Shore and the Petersburg metro area.

Belcher said that at least one company involved in a pending economic development deal is taking advantage of that new law, and that others “in various stages of the site selection process” have asked about it as well.

Bills to replace lost local revenue

A slate of other bills carried by southwestern lawmakers is aimed at propping up local revenues and school funding that has been decimated by coal’s decline and subsequent depopulation.

“It comes down to population loss, which has an effect on everything from commerce to taxation to school funding,” Morefield said.

O’Quinn has a bill that would allow local school boards to sell advertising on school buses. That bill has passed the House but not yet the Senate. O’Quinn got the idea for a bill when he saw a school bus on the Tennessee side of Bristol that carried advertising. This is the third year he’s carried the bill.

“It’s trying to give localities one additional way to raise money under these tight parameters,” O’Quinn said. “They can do it if they want, or not if they want. It seems like a simple way to opt into a program that has zero taxpayer ramifications.”

Carrico described a failed bill to allow any locality to tax cigarettes if it’s approved by referendum as a “freedom bill” that allows county residents to vote on the question.

“It’s another way localities can, in my region, have the ability to raise additional funds to do what they need for education and public safety,” Carrico said. The bill was killed by the Senate Finance Committee.

By contrast, bills by Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Russell, and Del. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, to extend the sunset date on the local gas severance tax seems to be sailing through the General Assembly. Revenues from that tax fund local coal and gas road improvements, regional economic development efforts through the Virginia Coalfield EDA, and infrastructure such as water, sewer and natural gas systems and lines.

Bills to rebuild infrastructure

Another group of bills is intended to build — or rebuild — southwestern Virginia’s infrastructure, including its workforce.

A bill carried by O’Quinn requires the State Corporation Commission to create a program in which Appalachian Power and Dominion Energy can build broadband internet lines in unserved areas. It has passed the House and been referred to the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee.

A Chafin bill would create a grant program for rural information technology apprenticeships and training and is heading for passage.

Another bill also carried by Chafin would expand the list of telemedicine services that insurers are required to cover, potentially growing medical coverage in a region that has otherwise seen a loss of providers. It has passed the Senate and has been referred to a House committee.

‘Once you bring folks in, they want to stay there’

Finally, lawmakers are looking to higher education as a path to an economic future. During the 2017 gubernatorial campaign, Gov. Ralph Northam proposed a $15 million expansion of the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. Now, southwestern Virginia legislators want to attract more Appalachian students to UVA-Wise, with Kilgore and Carrico each carrying bills to decrease the cost of tuition for students that live in one of the Appalachian Regional Commission’s counties.

“It’s going to open some doors that UVA-Wise has not been able to open,” Kilgore said. “We always struggle with recruiting. We have students right around us who are just far enough away that we can’t give them in-state tuition. The key is to grow our college. By bringing all those students in, we can improve our workforce. Once you bring folks into an area, they want to stay there, create jobs, things of that nature.”

In the early 2010s, Republicans used “war on coal” messaging to hammer Democrats and argue that only federal air rules were holding back the coal industry from a sweeping comeback. Now, with no Democrats in the Southwest Virginia delegation, a Republican 9th District congressman, and a Republican president in the White House, there’s no longer a politically potent excuse for the economic distress in the former coalfields.

“I don’t know we’re boxed in by anything except what we’re trying to do for the people who sent us up there,” O’Quinn said. “We’ve not been shy about trying to put bills forward that will ultimately help Southwest Virginia, regardless of whether we have buy in from our caucus or not. We’re not just coming up here and inventing this stuff and talking amongst ourselves; these are things we’re picking up from hundreds of meetings and this and that from over the course of the year: having real people bring us their real concerns.”


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Mason Adams
Mason Adams

A native of Clifton Forge, Mason has covered Blue Ridge and Appalachian communities since 2001. He worked for Waynesville, N.C.’s Enterprise-Mountaineer from 2001 to 2003 and The Roanoke Times from 2003 through 2012. He’s freelanced since then, with bylines in Politico Magazine, the Washington Post, the New Republic, Vice, Blue Ridge Outdoors, Scalawag, Belt Magazine and many more. He lives in Floyd County.