McAuliffe vetoes coal subsidy bills, but Republicans vow to keep the corporate welfare flowing

Your taxpayer dollars at work!

Your taxpayer dollars at work!

Governor Terry McAuliffe has vetoed the two bills that would have extended Virginia’s coal subsidies through 2019. It’s a laudable act of fiscal responsibility, and surely no more than Virginia taxpayers had a right to expect in a time of tight state budgets. And yet it was also an act of courage in a coal state where mining companies have had far too much political power for far too long.

You’d like to think legislators would now focus on working with the Administration to help southwest Virginia communities shift away from their unhealthy dependence on coal mining and instead develop new, cleaner industries. The tens of millions of dollars that have been spent annually on coal subsidies could be much better directed to job diversification efforts. Unfortunately, legislators representing coal companies—I mean, coal countieshave already vowed to reintroduce bills next year to keep the taxpayer largesse flowing. They have time; the subsidies won’t actually expire until January 1, 2017.

It’s been 20 years since Virginia began subsidizing coal mining via these two tax credits, bleeding the state treasury of more than $500 million in all. And it’s been three years since the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC) issued a critique of the various Virginia tax credits that included an especially harsh assessment of the handouts to coal companies. Yet instead of canceling the credits in light of the report, the General Assembly promptly extended them. Even Governor McAuliffe didn’t actually try to end them completely this year. Legislators rejected his efforts simply to scale them back, leading to this veto.

So if we didn’t get jobs for our $500 million, what did we get? Most of the money has gone to enrich coal companies, but a portion went to fund the Virginia Coalfields Economic Development Authority (VACEDA). VACEDA’s board includes coal executives, a fact which has served to intensify rather than lessen coal’s hold on the area.

Perhaps VACEDA’s economic diversification mission would prove more successful if the state were to fund it directly, with money not tied to coal, and were to insist on reforms to VACEDA to ensure board members don’t have a conflict of interest.

In addition to propping up the coal industry, the tax credits also serve to lower the price of Virginia coal purchased by our utilities. This shifts energy costs from ratepayers to taxpayers, but it also makes it easier for coal to compete against other forms of energy, including renewable energy like wind and solar. And since making taxpayers subsidize electricity rates artificially cheapens electricity, it also lessens the incentive to conserve energy. In an age of climate change, this is simply bad energy policy.

Most economists agree that energy policy should seek to make electricity rates reflect the true cost of producing energy. This should include costs imposed on the public in the form of higher health care costs for asthma and heart disease as a result of power plant pollution—costs known as “externalities.” The coal subsidies do the exact opposite; instead of making utilities and coal companies internalize pollution costs, they actually shift more costs onto the public.

All this was done in the name of supporting employment in the Coalfields areas. However, the coal subsidies aren’t linked to jobs; they are based on coal tonnage, so mining companies that increase mechanization while cutting jobs don’t lose anything. And cutting jobs is exactly what has happened in Virginia. As the Governor’s veto statement noted, coal mining jobs declined steadily from their highs in the early 1990s to about 3,600 today, notwithstanding the subsidies.

A reading of the JLARC report also shows that most of the drop occurred before President Obama took office and the EPA imposed tighter pollution standards. The fact is, coal is in decline, and Virginians will be better off not throwing good money after bad.

Indeed, the coal jobs number is barely twice the number of people working in Virginia’s tiny solar industry, which gets no state subsidies. Just this year a House subcommittee killed a bill that would have provided $10 million a year in support for renewable energy projects.

Solar is growing by leaps and bounds across the country, while coal fades. Governor McAuliffe has taken the right lesson from that. It’s too bad so many Virginia legislators have not.

Fiscal and environmental sanity get a boost as McAuliffe proposes to roll back coal subsidies

Your taxpayer dollars at work!

Your taxpayer dollars at work!

Thanks to the state’s budget deficit, Virginia may finally scale way back a notorious fossil fuel subsidy that currently transfers tens of millions of dollars annually from taxpayers to the pockets of corporations that mine Virginia coal. The Richmond Times Dispatch reports that if Governor McAuliffe has his way, the Virginia Coal Employment and Production Incentive Tax Credit and the Coalfield Employment Enhancement Tax Credit will be limited to $500,000 per year, saving the government $20 million per year.

The refundable tax credits were intended to make Virginia coal cheaper for utilities to buy, and thus more competitive with coal mined in other states. In theory, that was supposed to mean more coal mining jobs in southwest Virginia. In practice, the subsidies meant some coal companies paid no state taxes, and actually received significant cash handouts, even as coal jobs declined. And because the subsidies are based on tons of coal mined and not on the number of people employed, mining companies suffered no penalty from capital investments that maximized production while cutting jobs.

Critics of the subsidies thought they had won their point three years ago when the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC) issued a critique of the various Virginia tax credits that was especially critical of the handouts to coal companies. As it describes beginning on page 67, the subsidies did not stop coal employment from falling 54% since 1990, or slow the steady decline in production:

“The precursor to one of the current coal credits was in place before the decline began, while the other was enacted shortly thereafter. It is important to note that with or without the credits, the decline in Virginia coal production was predicted by numerous analysts because over two-thirds of recoverable coal reserves in Virginia have already been mined.”

Indeed, the report continued, coal employment and production was actually worse with the credits in place:

“In the process of developing and refining the credit, analysts projected that coal employment and production would decline by 28 percent between 1996 and 2005 without the credit. However, actual mining employment was substantially lower than expected during this period, declining 36 percent.”

In spite of this damning analysis, in 2012 the General Assembly actually extended the expiration date of the coal subsidies until 2017. Insiders say Senate Democrats were persuaded to vote for the extension as a favor to coalfields senator Phil Puckett, who needed the backing of coal companies to hold his seat in 2013 and keep Democrats in control of the Senate. (Some might say he failed to return the favor.)

The coal subsidies have long infuriated environmentalists and community activists in the Coalfields region. In their view, Virginia taxpayers should not be forced to reward mining companies for blowing off the tops of our mountains, filling ancient stream valleys with rubble, poisoning wells and rivers, and destroying homes to get at the last, thin seams of Virginia coal.

So Coalfields activists welcomed the Governor’s proposal as a “good first step” in planning a future where coal is no longer the economic engine it once was. “We need to take our heads out of the sand and invest heavily in diversifying our economy in Southwest Virginia,” said Wise County resident Jane Branham, Vice President of Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards. “Supporting outdoor recreation, tourism, sustainable agriculture, reforestation and a new generation of entrepreneurs is the path forward in the mountains, not subsidizing bad actor coal companies that continue to poison the natural resources our future depends on.”

Renewable energy advocates have also complained that by making coal cheaper, the subsidies make it harder for other forms of energy to compete. One would expect this argument to resonate with free market advocates, a category that supposedly includes all Virginia Republicans and a lot of the Democrats. Yet in spite of criticism from some Democrats, the subsidies have not faced serious opposition before now.

Acquiescence in such an expensive and counter-productive corporate welfare program mostly reflects the influence of the Virginia coal industry. (See last week’s post for a sampling of how coal companies work to buy votes with campaign cash.) But the drafters sweetened the deal with a provision that siphons off a portion of the excess cash to fund the Virginia Coalfield Economic Development Authority (VACEDA), which is supposed to help the region diversify beyond coal. (It might work better if coal executives didn’t sit on the board.)

Under McAuliffe’s proposal, VACEDA would get a direct appropriation of $1.2 million to replace the money it would lose by the scaling back of the tax credits. That should satisfy those legislators whose primary concern is helping residents of southwest Virginia.

Those whose primary concern is helping coal companies, however, aren’t likely to be happy. Congressman Morgan Griffith has already been quoted as suggesting Governor McAuliffe’s proposal to scale back the coal subsidies amounts to a “war on coal.”

He expressed no concern about coal’s war on the people of southwest Virginia. For those who care about that, Governor McAuliffe’s move feels like a breath of clean air.

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Addendum: Senator Bill Carrico (R-Alpha Natural Resources) has now filed a bill, S741, to extend the coal subsidies until 2022.