What President Biden Could Do for the Environment in His First Ninety Days

I recognize that some of my readers may be Trump supporters who would prefer not to see a Biden administration. And, of course, one should not count one’s chickens too early. That said, there can be little debate that the Trump administration has been more hostile to sound environmental policy than any administration in modern history. From the start President Trump identified environmental protection as the territory of Obama liberals and played strongly to his populist base and big fossil fuel industry donors by dismantling every protection in sight. So, a Biden administration has a lot of work to do restoring the positive direction set in previous administrations. Here is where I think he should start.

Rejoin the Paris Accords

Almost every nation in the world, including the United States, signed the Paris Accords in 2015. The central aim of the Accords is to coordinate a global response to climate change by keeping a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius and to find the means to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

But Trump is a climate change denier, and his fossil fuel backers have a financial stake in things remaining as they are. On November 4, 2019, the Trump administration began the official process of withdrawing the United States from the Paris Accords, which will not be completed until the day after the November 2020 election. Upon withdrawal, the U.S. will no longer be committed to reach its emissions reduction targets under the Accords.

Why does this matter? First, the United States is one of the two largest emitters of greenhouse gasses in the world so relaxing our efforts to reduce these emissions will have a hugely negative effect on the world’s ability to reach the Paris goals. Second, the United States is an environmental policy and technology leader in world. Our absence from the Accords takes our gravitas and leadership out of the equation. It weakens our international soft power and opens the door to preening by the Chinese.

How could a Biden administration reverse Trump’s withdrawal? The Paris Accords are a non-binding expression of national commitment. President  Obama was able to enter the United States into the agreement through executive action, since it imposed no new legal obligations on the country. Candidate Biden has pledged to recommit the country to the Paris Accords, and can do so most likely through similar executive action. Legislation is also possible.  Experts believe that the United States could rejoin the Accords in a matter of a few months. It is inconceivable that other nations would oppose our rejoining.

Appoint Environmentalists to Head Environmental Agencies

What a concept. But President Trump’s first appointment to head the EPA was Scott Pruitt, a notorious climate change skeptic. As Oklahoma’s Attorney General, Pruitt sued the EPA 14 times. Pruitt’s replacement, Andrew Wheeler, is a former coal industry lobbyist who has proposed dubious rules limiting the kind of scientific information the EPA can consider. One that called on the EPA to consider only “double blind” studies of the sort used in drug trials was called “breathtakingly ignorant” by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The Biden administration should be able to improve upon the quality of the EPA Administrator in short order.

The Department of the Interior sets policy and manages the implementation of many environmental statutes through a group of key agencies, including the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service, and others. Having a Secretary with environmental sensitivity and purpose could make a huge difference.

President Trump has seemed mainly interested in using the Department of Interior as a conduit to reward his friends in the extractive industries by shrinking protected land and opening federal lands to resource exploitation. Trump’s first appointment to Interior, Ryan Zinke, has been called “the most anti-conservation Interior secretary in our nation’s history.” President Biden’s appointment of a Secretary of Interior will be significant and closely watched.

Revive Obama’s Executive Order Requiring All Federal Agencies to Enhance Climate Preparedness and Resilience

In 2013, President Obama issued Executive Order 13653 instructing all federal agencies to identify global warming’s probable impact on their operations and take the actions necessary to protect against that impact. The importance of this is obvious. In 2016 alone the United States suffered 15 extreme weather and climate-related disasters each exceeding $1 billion in losses. Moreover, the Pentagon has for years regarded global warming as a significant threat to American national security.

But in March 2017, shortly after taking office, President Trump rescinded Obama’s Executive Order. In this order, Trump clearly set out the reason for this rescission:

It is the policy of the United States that executive departments and agencies immediately review existing regulations that potentially burden the development or use of domestically produced energy resources [oil, natural gas, coal, and nuclear energy resources] and appropriately suspend, revise, or rescind those that unduly burden the development of domestic energy resources beyond the degree necessary to protect the public interest or otherwise comply with the law. “Burden” means to unnecessarily obstruct, delay, curtail, or otherwise impose significant costs on the siting, permitting, production, utilization, transmission, or delivery of energy resources.

It is not immediately obvious why unburdening the production of domestic energy required the rescission of Obama’s direction to plan for climate disasters, but there you have it. President Biden should immediately rescind this absurd Order and restore good sense to the nation’s efforts to protect itself against the effects of global warming.

Establish Science, Not Politics, As the Guiding Principle of Environmental Policy

President Trump has politicized agencies that are only effective and credible when they rely on the best science. This has happened since the beginning of the Trump administration. For example, he has marginalized the EPA’s Science Advisory Board by prohibiting any member but the Chairman from reviewing decisions regarding agency regulations. His 2021 budget proposes eliminating funding for that agency’s Climate Change Research Program. Pursuant to a direction from a Trump executive order EPA terminated the National Advisory Council on Environmental Policy and Technology. The BLM issued a final environmental impact statement for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and concluded there was no climate crisis.

The list of anti-science policies and actions during the Trump administration is quite long. These have been catalogued by Columbia University Law School’s “Silencing Science Tracker.” Within the first ninety days of a Biden administration, he could issue an executive order directing federal agencies to act only after giving heightened consideration to the best data and scientific opinion available, and he could restore to a prominent role the various science advisory bodies Trump has marginalized or dismantled.

Reversing Anti-Environment Regulations

President Biden will be unable in the first ninety days to reverse many of the harmful regulatory rollbacks and changes wrought by the Trump administration. All of these have been listed by the Harvard Law School’s Regulatory Rollback Tracker. This is because any such action must proceed deliberately and be based on a reasonable assessment of all factors, usually involving public testimony or input. He will not simply be able to change a regulation because he believes it is the ill-conceived product of the previous administration. Trump learned this lesson the hard way, most recently in connection with reversing Obama’s DACA order deferring deportation of children brought here illegally.

But President Biden can direct that these be triaged and that the process for reversing the most significant of them be started. The list is long and tantalizing. It includes Obama’s Clean Power Plan setting standards for power plant emissions, which the Trump administration repealed. The Clean Power Plan was a primary means to reach the nation’s Paris Accords emissions commitment.

There may be other, more important steps President Biden could take immediately to restore the correct course on the environment. The plate will certainly be full. One thing is certain — January 2021 cannot come soon enough for the environment.

Solar Energy and the Legislature: A Power Play in Charleston

For a state beholden to the coal and natural gas industries, solar energy generated a lot of heat at the recent West Virginia legislative session. Two initiatives concerning alternative energy, including solar, were introduced. One survived and will become law. Unfortunately, the survivor is a timid effort to attract a specific hi-tech enterprise that will involve no new solar energy facilities unless that enterprise locates here. But progress on renewable energy in West Virginia will have to be made in small steps, and this was a start.

The unsuccessful initiative – SB 759 – contained a number of wonderful ideas that would have enabled commercial and individual property owners to develop alternative energy for their own consumption.  The bill would have accomplished this by authorizing municipalities to establish low-cost alternative energy revolving loan programs to assist the property owners. Interest rates charged on the loans from these programs would have been below prevailing market rates.

The alternative energy technologies eligible for loans from the municipal loan program included solar photovoltaic projects, solar thermal energy projects, geothermal energy projects, as well as wind energy, biomass or gasification facilities for generating electricity.

SB 759 was introduced by Democratic Senators Robert Plymale and Mike Woelfel, both from District 5 (Cabell and Wayne counties). It was referred to the Government Organization Committee, the place where bills of this sort go to die. At the end of the session 67 bills, including SB 759, had expired in that committee with no action.

The survivor of the two initiatives — SB 583 — was introduced by Republican Senator Patricia Rucker of Jefferson County, among others. This bill will authorize electric utilities in the state to construct or purchase solar energy facilities on sites that have previously been used for industrial, manufacturing or mining operations. Wind and other alternative energy sources are not covered.

Demonstrating how timorous this initiative is, solar facilities under the law can only be built in 50 megawatt increments. When 85% of the power from the first increment is under contract, facilities for the next 50 megawatts can be built. No single such facility can generate more than 200 megawatts and the state-wide cumulative generating capacity of renewable energy facilities can’t exceed 400 megawatts. Evidently, neither the utility industry nor the coal industry wanted a lot of excess solar power sloshing around that would require companies to reduce coal-fired power generation.

This bill surprisingly had the support of the West Virginia Department of Commerce. It seems that whenever the business recruiters at the Department tried to lure tech companies to the state, these companies insisted on the availability of solar energy. Well, of course, we have had no such capacity.

The particular focus of the Department’s recent efforts is a company that proposes to build a research and development facility in Preston County that will test ultra-high speed transportation systems. The provisions of SB 583 that enable utilities to recover their costs for constructing solar facilities will sunset in 2025, by which time this company will either have located in West Virginia or not. So despite the high-sounding rhetoric about the need for West Virginia to enter the twenty-first century world of renewable energy, the real driver of this legislation was immediate business development and not a long-term commitment to renewable energy.

A similar bill – HB 4562 – was introduced in the House and debated extensively in the House Energy Committee, where it appeared to be stalled by objections from the coal industry. When SB 583 was passed by the Senate and sent to the House, it sidestepped the troublesome Energy Committee and went straight to House Judiciary and then to the House floor. Debate there was contentious. Delegate Tom Bibby, a Republican from Berkeley County, grumbled 

If renewable energy and solar energy were so good they (the tech companies) could afford to pay for it themselves. Renewables may sound nice and good, but they are heavily subsidized. To say coal-fired power plants won’t suffer from this legislation is just sticking your head in the sand.

House environmental advocates were initially considering an amendment that would broaden SB 583 to include solar power purchase agreements (PPAs). These are contractual arrangements where a third-party developer designs, finances and installs a solar energy system on a customer’s property at little to no cost. The developer sells the power generated to the host customer at a fixed rate that is typically lower than the local utility’s retail rate.

However, the idea for an amendment allowing PPAs was dropped. Democrats favoring the amendment had little time to gather support and it was feared that complicating the process would threaten passage of the main bill. Karan Ireland, lead lobbyist for the West Virginia Environmental Council, lamented that “what we see is utilities calling the shots and getting everything they want in the process.”

So West Virginia will move forward with a solar facilities law limited in scope that was carefully managed by electric utility and coal interests to avoid any threat to the existing carbon-based power generation monopoly in the state. The motivation for this law had nothing to do with any recognition that burning coal is fouling our air and literally killing us. Nevertheless, it is a first step and progress will have to be made this way.

Paper or Plastic?

Remember when grocery clerks would ask this question at the checkout counter? Now you practically have to leap over the counter to prevent your groceries from immediately going into plastic bags. I have always assumed that plastic bags became the grocery industry’s packaging of choice because of the cost savings to the grocers. This is basically true. I have also assumed that paper bags are both biodegradable in landfills and recyclable into other products, while plastic bags are not biodegradable and rarely recycled. But going beneath these assumptions a little further, the environmentally sound choice between paper and plastic bags is not at all clear.

Plastic bags started to appear nationwide in the 1970s and soon captured 80% of the bag market. The principal grocers in Jefferson County – Food Lion, Martins and Walmart all default to plastic bags at the checkout counter. Paper bags are available only on request at Food Lion and Martins, which are both owned by the Dutch company Ahold Delhaize. Walmart does not offer paper grocery bags at all. One won’t find any explanation of the default to plastic bags on the websites of these chains.

All the chains offer reusable bags for sale at around a dollar a pop, and these are probably a better alternative than either paper or plastic bags. But even this turns out to be debatable depending on what they are made from and how many times they are used. Most of these reusable bags are woven plastic of some sort.

There are several factors to consider when deciding whether paper or plastic bags are more environmentally friendly. First, whether the raw materials that go into the manufacture of the bag are renewable. Next, how much electricity and water are used to produce them and how much greenhouse gas is emitted in each manufacturing process. Then how readily each type of bag can be recycled. Finally, how biodegradable each type of bag is at the end of its life cycle.

On the question of renewability of resources, paper bags are the clear winner. They are made from trees. Paper bag manufacturers do not typically use trees from Amazon rain forests, but rather tree farms of fast growing species. While they are growing these trees capture carbon. Plastic bags on the other hand are made from petroleum, which is a non-renewable resource that produces greenhouse gas when burned.

But when considering the use of resources and the release of greenhouse gas in the manufacturing process, plastic bags are the clear winner.  Making a paper bag consumes four times as much energy and three times as much water as making a plastic bag.  And because 1000 paper bags weigh over nine times the same number of plastic bags, transporting them also consumes more energy.

It is difficult to pin down exactly how much more greenhouse gas is emitted by the manufacture of paper bags than plastic bags. But it is a certainty that paper bag manufacturing is dirtier. The Sierra Club reports that you have to reuse a paper bag four times to reduce its carbon footprint to that of a plastic bag. Another study from 2008 asserts that paper bag manufacturing emits 80% more of this gas. A plastic bag manufacturer asserts that “solids” emitted into the air in the manufacture of paper bags is roughly twice what is emitted in the manufacture of a plastic bag.

The question of recycling further adds to the muddle. While paper bags can be recycled into other paper bags, the recycling process is inefficient, often taking more energy than it would to make a new bag. Furthermore, it takes about 90% more energy to recycle a pound of paper than a pound of plastic. But plastic bags are a recycling nightmare – most curbside recycling operations are not capable of recycling these bags because the thin plastic melts and fouls the machinery. It is estimated that only 12% of plastic bags are recycled.

So plastic bags often end up in landfills, where they can sit for 500 to 1000 years.  And plastic bags don’t ever “biodegrade.” Instead they “photodegrade” when exposed to light into smaller plastic particles. The more serious problem with plastic bags is that they don’t end up being disposed of properly but end up as litter. They are everywhere, fouling land and water. Plastic waste is deceptive to birds and mammals, who often mistake it for food. This would lead you to think that paper is the better choice. But here is the big surprise. A paper bag that ends up in a landfill does not biodegrade much faster than a plastic one photodegrades.

So perhaps the way to avoid this bag conundrum is not to use either type of single-use bag. The reusable bags offered for sale by grocery stores are a good option – if you use them long enough.  Heavier reusable plastic bags and cotton bags also have the freight of energy and resource consumption in their manufacture and their own greenhouse gas emission problems.  A heavy-duty plastic bag must be used five times to reduce its carbon footprint to that of a single-use plastic bag. A reusable cotton bag must be used 173 times.

There might also be a political solution to the problem. Eight states—California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon and Vermont—have completely banned single-use plastic bags. Some cities and localities have also instituted bans, including Montgomery County, Maryland. Jefferson County Delegates John Doyle and Sammi Brown introduced legislation in the 2019 Legislature that would ban single-use plastic bags in West Virginia. The legislation was referred to committee, where it awaits some sort of action in the next session.

Most likely, however, we will have to change our behavior voluntarily. That’s not to say we couldn’t use a nudge. The German grocer Aldi, which is a small player in the market, provides that nudge. That chain will happily sell you a plastic or paper bag for about 10 cents each. Aldi claims this saves them money that they return to customers in the form of lower prices. Perhaps.

But there is no doubt that Aldi’s price on single use bags acts as a tax with the predictable result of encouraging shoppers to come up with their own bags or reuse bags they have previously purchased at Aldi or elsewhere. While this approach doesn’t completely eliminate the problems associated with single-use bags, it gets us moving in the right direction without government intervention. My conservative friends like this.

Charter Schools: The Real Threat to Public Education

Those who have been following the Brexit debacle in the UK will be familiar with the terms Leavers and Remainers. Leavers are the faction who want Britain to leave the European Union, where it has prospered for decades. Remainers are the faction who want Britain to stay. West Virginia has its own version of Leavers. Our Leavers, led by Senator Patricia Rucker of Jefferson County, want to set up a system of charter schools that would permit parents to remove their children from public school. But the evidence does not show that students at charter schools perform better. Worse yet, the Leavers want the rest of us to pay for this scheme with our tax money, draining funds from already underfunded public schools.

Senator Rucker was appointed by the Republican leadership in the West Virginia Senate to be Chair of the Senate Education Committee. This Committee has first crack at any legislation affecting our public schools. She is an odd choice for this role. Her education views have been described as “extremist and in many ways anti-public education.”

Senator Rucker has five children, all of whom have been home schooled. At the very least, this shows some sort of distaste on her part for public schools. For this and other reasons the Charleston Gazette-Mail, West Virginia’s largest and most influential newspaper, declared that she was a poor choice for Education Committee Chair.

The Republican members of Senator Rucker’s Committee recently advanced SB 451, known as the Omnibus Education Bill. This 133-page Bill covers many topics, including teacher pay raises. It contains a complicated charter school provision and a provision for Education Savings Accounts into which the state would deposit money for parents to spend on private school education for their children, including religious schools and home schooling.

The Bill was passed out of the Education Committee to the floor of the Senate, from where it was scheduled to be referred to the Finance Committee. But the Republican leadership somehow forgot that they did not have the votes on Finance.  As a result, they quickly resorted to parliamentary hard-ball by declaring the full Senate a Committee of the Whole and bypassing the Finance Committee. This has been done only four times in state history. A revised Bill will probably pass the Senate and move to the House in the week beginning February 4, 2019.

Since the late Nineteenth Century, American public education has produced legions of well-educated students who have gone on to productive lives. Our system has been the envy of the world. Recently, our system of public education has been weakened by poor funding and low teacher pay.

It has also been undermined by conservative ideologues like Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos pushing alternatives to public school, such as charter schools, mostly in the name of parent choice. But there are already private schools in West Virginia – Jefferson has two and Berkeley has five. And there are over 11,000 home school students in West Virginia. So it cannot be a desire for alternatives to public school that is driving the Leavers.

Private schools charge tuition for attendance. These private schools are not the charter schools contemplated in SB 451, although private schools could qualify if they successfully complete the application process. Unlike private schools, SB 451 prohibits charter schools from charging tuition or fees.  Instead, they would be funded by a portion of the tax money that would otherwise fund public schools.

One issue that is not addressed in the text of SB 451 is whether private religious schools may qualify as public charter schools. An applicant for a charter must be a 501(c)(3) organization, but religious schools can possess that tax designation. Although there is a provision entitled “Prohibitions” in SB 451, it does not include a prohibition on a religious course of instruction. So SB 451 has the potential to allow public religious charter schools.

Charter schools would carve students and revenues from public schools and would recruit public school teachers. There is no way that public schools can be as strong after this bleeding. Charter schools might benefit students who attend them, but would harm students who don’t. This was precisely the issue raised by teachers in the recent strike in Los Angeles. That strike resulted in a moratorium on new charter schools.

Moreover, there is plenty of evidence that charter schools don’t deliver superior student performance. In a 2011 study of 36 charter middle schools in 15 states, the researchers compared charter school performance with local public schools. They found that charter schools showed some positive achievement results versus disadvantaged public schools but some negative results versus the more advantaged schools.  On average, however, charter middle schools in the study were neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving student achievement.

Despite high-sounding language about improving student achievement, the oversight and accountability under the Bill would be weak. HB 451 requires the authorizing School Board to supervise the performance of charter schools, but only allows it to terminate a charter school for failure to perform after five years of performance or lack thereof.

The second major initiative proposed by the Leavers is the creation of Education Savings Accounts (ESA), in use in only five states. These would be different than the vouchers that have been tried in 15 states over the last two decades. Vouchers are usually issued to parents and submitted by them to qualified private or charter schools in partial payment of the tuition. Money flows from the government to the qualified schools when they present the vouchers for payment. With an ESA, the money flows directly to the parents of a qualifying student. The amount would be 75% of the state’s share of per pupil spending — $3,172 in 2018-2019.

The parents would agree to spend the money on tuition to a private school or an institution of higher learning, tutoring, textbooks, educational hardware and software, school uniforms, transportation to school and several other things. The West Virginia Treasurer would be tasked with developing rules for determining if funds have been misused. The Treasurer does not currently perform these duties in connection with any similar program.

As with charter schools, the ESA money provided by the state could be spent on defraying the cost of attending a religious school. This would be an unprecedented failure to respect the separation of church and state embedded in our Constitution. It would be wrong.

The revised SB 451 limits the number of ESAs to 2,500, but there is no means test for eligibility.  A substantial number of these ESAs could be created for parents who would otherwise send their children to private school even without an ESA. In that way the ESAs would benefit the wealthy, not those who presently cannot afford private school.

Furthermore, the amount of the state’s contribution to the ESA would be short of the typical West Virginia private school tuition of $4,761, leaving a financial hurdle for low-income parents. Finally, private schools in West Virginia are not evenly distributed. Over half of the state’s private school students attend school in one of five counties. Nineteen counties in the state have no private schools at all.

SB 451 is not only ant-public school, it is anti-public school teacher. Some wags around the Capitol have called the Bill “Mitch Carmichael’s Revenge,” referring to the current Senate President’s annoyance at last year’s teacher’s strike. Not only does SB 451 contain charter school and ESA provisions, which most teachers oppose, it contains a provision making union dues harder to collect and a provision barring teachers for receiving pay even if School Boards close schools during job actions as they did last year.

Clearly the Leavers are in control of the West Virginia Senate and its Education Committee. But SB 451 doesn’t become law unless it is also passed by the House of Delegates and signed by the Governor, who has threatened a veto. There is hope for our public schools.  Our leaders simply need to come to their senses to protect them.

Death By A Thousand Cuts

The West Virginia Legislature began its main 2019 session on January, 9, 2019. All bills introduced in 2018 that were not then acted upon were re-introduced on the first day of this session. New legislative proposals have also been introduced early in this session. A review of both categories introduced in the House and Senate shows that there are several serious attempts to deal with the state’s problems.

But it also shows that many legislators are in love with tax exemptions and credits, which benefit one class of taxpayer and disadvantage everyone else. Sometimes these proposals have merit, but taken cumulatively they show the Legislature’s willingness to bleed our government of the revenue required for it to function effectively, drop by drop.

Legislators from both parties have proposed tax exemptions or credits, although Republicans have done so by a margin of roughly three to one. Here are some of the many proposals:

  • To exempt law enforcement officers from the payment of personal property tax (HB 2075);
  • To reduce the federal adjusted gross income figure used in West Virginia tax calculations for volunteer fire department and rescue squad members (HB 2208);
  • To exempt firefighters and volunteer firefighters from the payment of income tax, and real and personal property taxes (HB 2403)
  • To permit honorably discharged veterans to hunt, trap and fish without a license (HB 2030);
  • To exempt all motor vehicles from personal property tax (HB 2094);
  • To exempt the pension benefits of Department of Natural Resources police officers from state income tax (SB 12);
  • To exempt income earned by primary and secondary school teachers from personal income tax (HB 2370); and
  • To establish an income tax credit for practicing physicians who locate to West Virginia (SB 80).

For the last several years, this state has struggled with large budget deficits created because in earlier periods, when coal severance revenues were high, we reduced or eliminated other taxes. Among these were the business franchise tax and a reduction in the corporate income tax. Then the coal market, as it always does, went bust. We are now again operating with a surplus from an improved coal market and revenues from gas pipeline construction. But these sources of revenue are not permanent. Tax exemptions and credits, on the other hand, often become permanent.

Effective government costs money. Nobody likes paying taxes, but many of us like even less the failure of our government to create a successful, modern state that we don’t have to apologize for. Jim Justice is right about one thing – we are all tired of being 50th. Yet our tax choices don’t reflect an understanding of how to change this.

I am certain that cogent supporting arguments can be made by the legislative sponsors of each of the proposed exemptions and credits mentioned above. And it is difficult for opponents to argue that, say, school teachers aren’t worthy of tax relief. That sort of debate, though, is limited to the worthiness of the constituency to be favored.

What is missing is an analysis of the opportunity cost of granting exemptions and credits. What more important thing would we be able to do with the money we propose to confer on teachers or DNR police officers? There is very little of this analysis in the Legislature beyond the legislative fiscal notes, which are little more than a bookkeeping of what a proposal might cost. These fiscal notes are routinely ignored. You can be sure, however, that every nick in the general revenue fund created by a tax exemption or credit is ultimately felt somewhere else in the budgetary process.

This is not to say that tax exemptions and credits can’t be useful in achieving important policy goals, so long as they rationally fit those goals and are not one-off gifts to a particular constituency. Some of the recent legislative proposals fit well and seem worthy of enactment. For example, a refundable state earned income tax credit of 50% of the existing federal earned income credit. (HB 2108). This credit would further supplement the incomes of low and moderate income working adults. Doing that would increase the attractiveness of work and reduce the need for other public benefits like food stamps.

The idea of raising taxes is like the third rail in West Virginia politics. Nobody in the Legislature wants to touch it for fear of being punished by voters. But maybe we can be more careful about “spending” the revenues we do have on tax benefits for narrow constituencies. One way to do this is to resist the temptation to open any more small fiscal wounds in the body politic for the sake of momentary political benefit.

Going through all the bills that have been introduced in the Legislature so far, I came upon another idea. In each of the last two sessions, a bill has been introduced in the Senate proposing a five year sunset period for all tax credits in the Code (SB 23 and SB 48). Now that is a breath of fresh air.

 

Microplastics: An Emerging Concern for Animal and Human Health

I cannot claim to be the most environmentally aware person in my neighborhood. I drive a car that is way too fond of gas, and often leave the lights on when I shouldn’t. So maybe I can be excused for not having heard of microplastics until now.

Plastic, which is a petro-chemical product, is produced in prodigious quantities around the world and has been an important advancement in modern life. But all this plastic has created its own set of problems. One visible problem is the huge amount of plastic trash – containers, fishing nets, straws – that floats around on the surface of the oceans. Plastic products also shed or deconstruct to tiny, sometimes invisible, particles and fibers. The effects of these microplastics are poorly understood now, but they are sure to become a concern for animal and human health.

Since plastics were first widely used in the mid-20th century, roughly 9 billion tons of it have been produced, most of which has become trash. This trash doesn’t biodegrade. A November 26, 2018 article in the excellent magazine High Country News speculates that scientists in the distant future will come upon a brightly colored layer of plastic material deposited in our time. Some geologists today refer to the current period as the Plastocene, and even recognize a type of rock made from naturally fused plastic and sediment called plastiglomerate.

Microplastics are particles smaller than 5 millimeters in diameter. Some have broken down from larger objects like tires or plastic bags. Some have been intentionally manufactured. Concern about microbeads, tiny plastic scrubbers in toothpaste and exfoliant washes, led to a federal ban on them in personal care products beginning in 2017. But perhaps the greatest concern now is the tiny synthetic fibers shed by clothing.

Synthetic fibers are long, thin strands of plastic woven into threads, much like wool. It is estimated that 58% of today’s clothing is woven with them. The fleece that keeps us warm in the winter is full of synthetic fiber. Synthetic blankets, sweaters and shirts also. A researcher in Australia set up three washing machines with special filters that trapped the microfibers after washing fleece garments. He found that they shed up to 1900 tiny fibers each time they were washed. These are too small to be captured by typical washing machine filters or municipal sewage systems. They go directly into our open water.

We are beginning to realize how widely microplastics are being taken up by animals in the lower orders of the food chain, such as invertebrate sea creatures, worms and insects. Mosquito larvae are also capable of eating microplastics and then retaining the plastic as adults. Dragonfly and midges, which also begin life as underwater larvae, are similar. Larger fish and sea animals that predate on the lower level creatures are likely to take up microplastics into their gut. And birds that make meals of insects are equally likely to take up microplastics.

Studies between 1962 and 2012 have revealed that 59% of examined seabird species have ingested plastics. Albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters contain more plastic that other species, probably because they feed in the open ocean and mistake floating plastic for prey. Most of this comes from pecking or otherwise ingesting small pieces of bottle caps, plastic bags, balloons, buttons and plastic lighters.

In the case of birds and other animals, it is unclear whether the plastic transfers from the gut to other organs and muscles. It may simply be ground up and pass through undigested. It is clear, however, that mortality rates increase among the birds that ingest large amounts of plastic. This could be caused by obstruction in the digestive tract, or an inverse correlation between the amount of plastic ingested and the amount of body fat the bird produces.

There have been no proper studies of the effects on humans of plastic uptake by fish and birds. Even scientists who work in the area concede that we have more serious environmental problems like carbon dioxide emissions and coastal erosion that require attention immediately.

But you can expect more attention to be paid to microplastics in the future. One reason is that they often act as sponges for other organic pollutants such as dioxins and PCBs. The molecules of these notably harmful chemicals shelter in the water-free environment found between the long carbon chains that make up plastics. A Japanese study found that 3-millimeter-wide plastic resin pellets found in Tokyo Bay contained organic pollutants one million times their concentration in ordinary sea water.

So how can an environmentally retarded person such as my own personal self act appropriately when it comes to plastic? One thing I do is ask for paper bags at the Food Lion. The check-out people see me coming and immediately go on break. Too bad – they will just have to get used to it. I also try to buy products packaged without plastic, but this is near impossible. Recently I found a big jug of olive oil in a glass bottle and snagged it. The more people do this the sooner manufacturers will get the message. And I will start buying cotton and wool garments, avoiding space-age synthetics. No more Speedo swimsuits.

But aside from modifying individual behavior, what can be done? West Virginia counties and cities still have the freedom to pass ordinances prohibiting one-use plastic packaging like shopping bags and water bottles. Last year, our ultra-libertarian Senator Patricia Rucker led a group of like-minded legislators in an effort to prohibit municipalities from passing ordinances relating to packaging and similar sinister left-wing topics. This effort failed, but she is likely to try again this year. If our newly-found environmental consciousness in Jefferson County has continuing strength, perhaps we can prevail on our local governments to tackle the plastic issue promptly.

Finding A Practical and Effective Solution for Carbon Emissions

Can we talk? We need to stop wasting time and come up with a way to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions – now. The recent U.N. report on climate change should scare us into action if nothing else has. Earth’s surface temperatures are virtually certain to rise at accelerating rates between now and 2050, with many serious heat-related consequences, including the disruption of agriculture, wildfires and sea level rise. These will threaten world economic and political stability. This is no hoax. Existential threat would be a better term.

Many of the best minds today believe that the solution lies in putting the right price on the production of carbon-based fuels. Carbon producers like the coal industry create “externalities” – costs that are not part of the price of the coal paid by consumers.  Chief among these are the environmental effects of the greenhouse gasses emitted when coal is burned.  These costs are foisted onto the public in general.

Finding the right higher price for carbon would make carbon-based fuels less attractive than cleaner sources of energy, such as wind and solar. The right price for carbon would also encourage the development of energy efficient machinery and processes. Individual consumers would make better energy choices.

For those who believe the conservative ideology that free markets can solve all of our problems, here is a wake up call.  Free markets have totally failed us in pricing carbon. This is because neither the seller nor the buyer of carbon has an incentive to take externalities into account in the price.  Nearly everyone outside the Trump Administration – liberals and conservatives alike – believe that government must intervene. The question is how. There are two candidates for the job.

Cap and Trade

One system, called cap and trade, is currently in use in a group of New England states and California. Government’s role in a cap and trade system is to determine how much total carbon it will permit to be dumped into the atmosphere each year.  Government also sells permits to emitters up to the carbon limit and then supervises a secondary market.

Imagine that government decides it will tolerate 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide in year one.  It divides this amount into 1,000,000 permits worth 5,000 tons each.  The permits could be auctioned, generating revenue.  Some carbon emitters might be priced out of an auction, so they could go onto the secondary market to purchase pollution rights from emitters who, through technological improvements, do not need the right to emit all 5,000 tons authorized by their permit.

In year two the overall amount government will tolerate might be reduced to 4.5 million tons.  Each of the 1,000,000 permits in year two would authorize 4,500 tons, less pollution than the year before.  The price of these would be much higher than the year before at auction and also on the secondary market. The financial pressure on emitters to find ways to reduce their own carbon emissions would be intense. The carbon limit would be steadily reduced year to year until the goal is met.

The criticisms of cap and trade are several. First, emitters chafe at the government setting overall emission limits and call this “command and control,” a buzz-phrase for top down regulation. Actually these limits would be politically negotiated and might not be set low enough to avoid climate disaster. Second, if the overall limits are too low some emitters would be forced out of business, harming the economy. Third, and most important, cap and trade does not involve a mechanism to soften the impact of higher energy prices on consumers.  While environmentalists will favor the certainty that emissions would be reduced at predictable rate down to the level that will avoid climate disaster, this system would be subject to intense political pressure from emitters and consumers and would be politically unstable.

A Carbon Tax

The other method for solving the problem is a carbon tax. Under this method, government would decide the appropriate price for discouraging carbon emissions and then impose an escalating tax until that price is reached. This seems to be as much “command and control” as setting the carbon limit in a cap and trade system, but surprisingly conservatives seem to like the carbon tax better.

Voters in Washington state had the opportunity on November 6 to impose a “pollution fee” on emitters in that state. This fee would have operated exactly like a carbon tax. It would have been the first such tax to be adopted by ballot referendum anywhere.  Unfortunately voters turned down this measure 56% to 44% in what is now the typical divergence between rural and urban voters.

The Washington proposal was to impose a fee on large emitters, beginning at $15 per metric ton of carbon content and escalating $2 each year until it reached $55 per ton. For comparison, Sweden has the highest carbon tax in the world at $140 per ton. The Washington fee would have applied to fossil fuels sold or used within the state and electricity generated within or imported for consumption within the state.

The measure was expected to generate $2.2 billion in the first five years, which would have been directed to a trust fund. As a fee instead of  a tax, the proceeds could not be spent for general governmental purposes. Every cent raised would have gone toward solving climate-related problems, protecting the state’s environment or aiding communities affected by climate change or by the fee itself. This measure was designed to appeal to left-leaning and environmentally concerned voters.

An earlier measure for a carbon fee in Washington also failed because it was opposed by Democrats and labor. It aimed to gain support from more moderate voters by providing for the return of the proceeds from the fee directly to Washington residents, without reserving the money for alternative energy and conservation purposes.

The 2018 ballot initiative was opposed by petroleum producers who argued that the fee would not make a dent in global warming but would damage the state’s economy. They also argued the fee’s impact would be borne by consumers and small business. Commenting on the defeat of this measure, David Roberts, a reporter at Vox, wrote that “it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that the public is not quite ready for state carbon taxes.”

A Carbon Tax With Public Dividend

So it is with healthy skepticism that I come to the recent proposal made by a group called the Climate Leadership Council (CLC), consisting of the heads of large energy companies and Republican heavy-hitters like James Baker, George Schultz and Janet Yellin. Their plan is called The Carbon Dividend.

This plan involves a tax on carbon-based fuel producers determined by the carbon content of the fuels.  For example, coal would be taxed at $96 per ton, natural gas at $2.28 per thousand cubic feet and oil at $18 per barrel. This would work out to an average of $43 per ton of carbon dioxide. It would increase 3 to 5% per year as determined in the legislation.The purpose, as with any carbon tax, is to raise the cost of carbon-based fuels to discourage their use relative to cleaner sources of energy. Exxon-Mobil has pledged $1,000,000 to promote the plan.

The tax would be imposed on energy producers at the point the fuels enter the economy. But the financial impact of the tax would be passed on to consumers, indeed the scheme won’t work unless the costs are passed on because part of the design is to get consumers to economize and make the right energy choices.

Unlike the Washington proposal just defeated, revenues from the tax would be distributed to the public in a carbon dividend paid monthly or quarterly through the Social Security Administration. It would not be devoted to developing alternative energy or softening the blow on communities affected by the tax like Southern West Virginia would be. The CLC estimates the dividend will be as much as $2,000 per year for a family of four and is intended to offset the higher cost of goods caused by the tax.

The CLC further estimates that two-thirds of American families would be financial winners because the increased cost of energy for them would be less than $2,000. This is because only higher income families consume enough to outweigh the dividend. The proposal banks on the carbon dividend becoming as popular as Alaska’s Permanent Fund dividend of $1,000 per year to citizens.

Why, you ask, would big oil companies be interested in a program that reduces the consumption of their products? One answer is that these companies are afraid of future lawsuits blaming them for the effects of climate change.  The Carbon Dividend plan would involve some sort of litigation immunity much like the settlement with tobacco companies. Perhaps a more important reason is that the plan involves a grand trade-off whereby current regulations on carbon dioxide emissions like Obama’s Clean Power Plan would be eliminated as “unnecessary.”

Obviously, there are things about the Carbon Dividend plan that will be unpalatable to the environmental community. But keep in mind how quickly we must act. It will be politically necessary to have leading Republicans and much of industry on board if we hope to do anything beyond arguing about what should be done.

I for one am willing to allow conservatives to have their “revenue neutral” solution wherein the government doesn’t get the proceeds from the carbon tax to spend in ways I would like — so long as the plan effectively reduces carbon emissions. On this point the CLC says that the Carbon Dividend plan will reduce emissions by 32% compared to 2005, meaning the U.S. would exceed the upper end of the Paris Accords which called for a reduction of 26-28%.

The real beauty of the Carbon Dividend plan is that it addresses the psychological resistance people have to acting in their own best interest on the climate issue. The threat of global warming lacks immediacy to most people. It is difficult to convince them to endure costs now that will benefit others in fifty years. The dividend provides immediate benefits for behavior that is required to secure a much larger, though long-term benefit. It would make political support for adoption much more likely and help to insulate the plan from amendment through later legislation. Because of this the Carbon Dividend might be the practical and effective solution we are looking for.

SNAP Benefits, Work Requirements and West Virginia’s Hungry

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the centerpiece of the nation’s food security safety net. In FY 2016 SNAP benefits, formerly called food stamps, provided $500 million in nutrition assistance to low income West Virginians. On average, 358,000 West Virginians received benefits each month, roughly 20% of our population. These benefits amount to about $1.29 per meal. Yet our state government seems determined to cut recipients from the SNAP rolls.

Governor Justice recently signed a law making it more difficult for under-employed individuals to receive SNAP benefits.  This new law (HB 4001) was promoted by Republicans in the Legislature using the old “welfare Cadillac” myth about recipients taking advantage of public benefits. HB 4001 will have the effect of reducing the number of SNAP recipients among the vulnerable low-wage population.

Furthermore, the 2018 federal Farm Bill pending in Congress might do much the same. The U.S. House version of the Farm Bill, which would restrict current SNAP eligibility rules, barely squeaked by in the House on a vote of 213-211. House leadership had to rely entirely on Republican votes, the first farm bill in history to pass either chamber with only one party in support. The Senate, which passed its own version, is willing to be more generous than the House. SNAP eligibility is the most contentious issue facing House and Senate conferees.  The harsh House approach was favored by West Virginia Congressman Alex Mooney for the emptiest of reasons.

West Virginia Governor Jim Justice

West Virginia Governor Jim Justice

To receive SNAP benefits an individual can have gross monthly income of no more than $1,307 and a family of four no more than $2,665. These figures are 130% of the federal poverty level. In addition, there are work requirements for eligibility, first imposed in 1996. An able-bodied adult without dependents (ABAWD) can only get SNAP benefits for three months in a three year period unless he or she meets the work requirements. This is called the time limit. An ABAWD must work at least 80 hours per month or participate in a qualifying training activity to avoid the time limit.

Federal law allows states to apply for a waiver of the time limit for ABAWD individuals in areas where it is more difficult to find work than in more prosperous areas of the country.  In West Virginia this has been done broadly on a county by county basis and many counties have routinely received waivers.  The waivers are largely responsible for the broad availability of SNAP benefits in the state. But HB 4001 will put a stop to these waivers. No West Virginia county will be allowed a waiver for any reason after October 1, 2022.

I am interested in eliminating fraud as much as the next person. But the waiver elimination in HB 4001 isn’t directed at fraud. Instead it is directed at people who are presumed to be lazy and unwilling to work, and who thereby take advantage of federal benefits. In this way HB 4001 creates a moral test of personal responsibility to receive assistance irrespective of need. It isn’t even a matter of saving West Virginia taxpayers money. SNAP benefits are entirely paid for by federal money, and every dollar in these benefits results in $1.80 in total economic activity in the state. So cutting people from SNAP benefits will actually hurt our economy.

Nevertheless, the lead sponsor of HB 4001, Del. Tom Fast (R-Fayette) told the Huntington Herald-Dispatch that the various features of the bill were designed to weed out “those who do not truly need assistance”:

I have consistently heard people just in conversation make complaints of seeing people purchase things with [a SNAP debit card] – luxury-type items – using the cards and then going out and getting in a luxury SUV. It is something I hear not just in my district but in areas all around the state.

This is certainly not what you would call empirical proof on which public policy should be made. Yet our Jefferson County Delegates — all Republican — didn’t seem to be bothered by the lack of proof. Delegates Paul Espinosa, Riley Moore and Jill Upson all voted in favor of HB 4001.

HB 4001 is just one more measure imposed by the conservative “personal responsibility” crowd without inquiring whether there might be some reasons other than lack of responsibility why a SNAP recipient might be unable to work twenty hours per week. Most of these people actually are working, but in jobs with low-pay, inconsistent schedules and unstable futures. The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy adds that lack of access to transportation, undiagnosed mental illness, a criminal record from a past mistake, or living in an economically devastated part of the state are also plausible explanations. Unfortunately these explanations have also not been empirically validated.

But the Brookings Institution has looked at the question in a serious way in connection with the 2018 federal Farm Bill. Their research found that one in five adults in the ABAWD category switches between working more than 20 hours per week to a different employment status, such as working less than 20 hours per week, seeking employment, or being out of the labor force. For those in the labor force, work-related reasons – not being able to find work, being laid off, or working more than 15 hours for no pay at a family business or farm – were the most frequent explanations. Because only those working more than 20 hours per week every month would be eligible to retain their SNAP benefits, Brookings estimated that nearly 80% of ABAWD individuals would be exposed to potential SNAP benefit loss.

One other study came to a similar conclusion. In May 2016 the Department of Health and Human Resources did an experiment in the nine West Virginia counties with the lowest unemployment rates. The experiment explored what would happen if there were no possible waivers of the time limit — exactly the effect of HB 4001.  In the experiment ABAWD individuals strictly lost SNAP benefits unless they found 80 hours per month of employment or were participating in a work training or community service activity. While 5,417 people were cut from the SNAP rolls in the nine counties, DHHR reported that the experiment did not significantly improve employment figures for the ABAWD group. While the results of this experiment were available to the West Virginia Legislature before it adopted HB 4001, the results came to an inconvenient conclusion and were therefore ignored.

In a separate but predictable outcome during the experiment, demand for meal service at private soup kitchens increased 25% in Cabell, one of the nine pilot counties. This simply demonstrates that even though many of the hungry won’t be assisted by government benefits under HB 4001, they will still be hungry. The burden of feeding them will not disappear but rather will fall to private organizations.

Congressman Alex Mooney

Congressman Alex Mooney

Meanwhile the drama concerning the 2018 Farm Bill continues. The House version would impose increasing periods of disqualification each time an under-employed person failed to meet the work requirements. This feature and others are predicted to result in 400,000 households losing benefits. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that by 2028 the House version would lower the SNAP caseload by about 1.2 million people.  Congressman Alex Mooney, who has probably never experienced real hunger in his life, said that the “conservative” SNAP reform provisions led to his support for the Farm Bill. In a spectacular non sequitur, Mooney said that “because farmers work long hours to produce food for the nation, so should program recipients.” His analysis on this, as on other matters, is about a quarter-inch deep.

It is certainly time that we stopped blaming the poor for their own misfortune. Hunger and food insecurity are not things people voluntarily choose. Moreover, cutting people off SNAP benefits harms the entire state because we would lose millions in federal benefit dollars that circulate in our economy. Regrettably, however, unsophisticated and uncharitable attitudes toward poverty and hunger dominate the majority party in Charleston and in Washington.

Trump Administration Abruptly Changes Migratory Bird Enforcement Policy

For 100 years, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) has protected nearly 1000 bird species in the United States against being “taken” or killed except under prescribed circumstances. This statute prohibits hunters from intentionally killing birds without a permit, but has also been interpreted by courts and the Interior Department to prohibit incidental taking – the unintentional destruction of birds or nests through some instrumentality or activity like spraying pesticides or the erection of wind turbines. The MBTA is a strict liability statute. If a covered bird dies then misdemeanor liability is established despite the efforts or good will of the defendant.

The MBTA itself is silent about whether intent is a necessary element of the misdemeanor, but Congress has amended the statute several times without correcting the prevailing judicial interpretation that intent to harm birds is not required. In fact, the amendments carved out special areas where intent was necessary, strongly implying that in all other areas intent was unnecessary.

This interpretation was formally adopted by the Interior Department in a legal memo issued in the waning days of the Obama Administration. However, a new interpretive memo was issued in December 2017 by the Trump Interior Department reversing the Obama approach and essentially eliminating the enforcement of the MBTA against incidental taking.

This is an historic and meaningful about-face. Incidental taking cases are largely against the oil industry – the two largest prosecutions came after the Exxon Valdez spill and the Deepwater Horizon oil well disaster. Oil production activity is obviously not intentionally designed to kill birds, so without enforcement against incidental taking the overwhelming majority of large scale bird kills will have no legal consequences. Since private citizens have no right to file lawsuits to enforce the MBTA, the Trump Interior Department’s direction to Fish and Wildlife enforcement officials to lay off incidental taking cases is hugely significant.

The author of the new Trump enforcement memo is Dan Jorjani, a long-time advisor to billionaire oil man Charles Koch. The Obama interpretation also angered Harold Hamm, a billionaire backer of Donald Trump whose Continental Resources company was prosecuted for repeatedly failing to erect nets over waste oil pits. But seventeen former Interior officials, including Fish and Wildlife directors under Presidents Nixon, Bush I, Clinton, Bush II and Obama have repudiated Jorjani’s interpretation. And it is easy to pick apart Jorjani’s rationale. It is clear that in the Trump Administration good conservation policy and quality legal analysis has given way to rewarding small-government, libertarian political contributors.

The Trump memo justifies the enforcement change in two ways. First, three U.S. Courts of Appeals have ruled that prosecution of a corporation that unintentionally kills birds in the course of a business activity is inconsistent with the meaning of the word “take” as used in the statute. Two of these cases dealt with habitat destruction from cutting trees. The rationale in these cases was that when the statute was passed 100 years ago taking referred to hunting or capturing birds, clearly intentional conduct directed at birds. These courts were concerned with the unfairness of extending criminal liability to otherwise innocent business activity.

Several other Courts of Appeals have supported the Obama approach, but the Trump Administration has chosen to ignore those cases. The MBTA is an historic conservation statute with broad scope. It is the responsibility of the Interior Department to interpret the statute to give it broad effect. This is exactly what the Department has done for 100 years by considering as prohibited incidental taking without actual intent to harm birds. If Congress intended to exclude incidental taking from the scope of the statute, it could have said so on many occasions. But this issue seems beside the point. Since the statute also prohibits killing birds “by any means or in any manner” it is simply not necessary to resolve what the word “take” meant 100 years ago. Incidental, unintentional killing is clearly covered.

The second justification for the enforcement change is that the Obama interpretation was open-ended and could potentially have criminalized millions of Americans who merely have a large picture window into which a bird commits suicide, or whose cat behaves like a cat. This issue has been raised in many of the litigated cases but has never gotten judicial traction. One court explained that to get a conviction for incidental taking, the prosecution would still have to prove that the killing of birds should have been reasonably anticipated or foreseen from the nature of the defendant’s activity. This is not intent to cause a bird kill, but rather awareness that it could happen. The court said “[b]ecause the death of a protected bird is generally not a probable consequence of driving an automobile, piloting an airplane, maintaining an office building, or living in a residential dwelling with a picture window, such activities would not normally result in liability.”

Some commentators have remarked that the public has been whipsawed between an Obama enforcement approach that went too far and a Trump enforcement approach that doesn’t go nearly far enough. Clearly the Trump interpretation of the MBTA guts the statute and is unacceptable. But it is hard to escape the sense that interpreting a statute broadly to create potential (and actual) business liability without considering the intent of the business, or the efforts of the business to comply, is asking for trouble. Businesses caught up in MBTA enforcement have been frustrated and believe they have been treated unfairly. This has led them to seek political help, which they have now found.

Perhaps the best way through this mess is for Congress to amend the MBTA to confirm clearly that the statute reaches incidental taking, while requiring Fish and Wildlife inspectors to first warn a business with a structure or practice likely to harm birds, and allowing a substantial penalty reduction for good faith efforts to comply. Without this kind of balance the MBTA will simply be unstable, lurching from one enforcement interpretation to the next.

West Virginia Republican Legislators Propose “Death Star” Preemption Bill to Strip Counties, Cities and Towns of Power to Enact Progressive Policies

State preemption of local government is all the rage among conservative legislators around the country these days. Here’s how it works. Suppose the Jefferson County Commission wished to pass an ordinance banning plastic bags at grocery stores as a threat to the environment. Or suppose the city of Beckley declared it unlawful for a private employer within the city to ask for information about race or sexual orientation on employment applications. State preemption seeks to strip local governments of the right to regulate certain matters within their own borders. Usually these matters are of concern to progressive cities but not conservative Republican-majority state legislatures. And preventing West Virginia local governments from adopting progressive policies is just what the Panhandle’s own Senator Patricia Rucker and her conservative Republican colleagues are now seeking to do.

West Virginia is one of the states that follows Dillon’s Rule. In a nutshell this principle of law states that municipal governments owe their existence to state legislatures. They can be created, eliminated or limited in authority any way the state legislature decides. Unless a power is expressly given to the local governments, they don’t possess that power. Even in those areas where local governments have express power to regulate, those regulations cannot be inconsistent in any way with state law. This played out in the rejection of Morgantown’s local ban on fracking, which was found by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals to be inconsistent with the state’s licensing of drillers under its broad oil and gas laws.

The Legislature has expressly granted certain “home rule” powers to all West Virginia cities in WV Code 8-12-5. Among these are the powers to furnish local services, to protect order, safety and health, and to tax under certain limitations. West Virginia has also created the Home Rule Pilot Program, under which 34 cities can apply for extra power to solve specified problems. Martinsburg, Shepherdstown, Charles Town, Harpers Ferry and Ranson have been granted these limited extra powers.

But standard home rule power under WV Code 8-12-5 is generalized, leaving the municipalities much room for interpretation and action. For example, in order to protect order, safety and health a city might pass an ordinance banning handguns. That is where state preemption comes in. At the behest of the NRA, the West Virginia Legislature has specifically preempted localities from regulating firearms.

Other Republican-controlled states have gone much further to shackle local governments than preempting firearm regulation. Michigan, for example, passed what opponents called the “Death Star” bill because of the extent to which it imposed state control. That statute affected local government ability to pass ordinances that raised minimum wages, raised benefits, required sick leave, regulated union organizing and strikes, or regulated apprenticeship programs. As originally proposed, the Death Star would have retroactively invalidated local ordinances protecting the LGBT community. That feature was removed and the bill that passed has prospective effect only.

The vehicle for state preemption of local governments in West Virginia is SB 458 sponsored by Sen. Rucker and a handful of other Republican Senators. The Bill passed the Senate on February 15, 2018 on a vote of 22 to 12. Panhandle Senators Rucker, Charles Trump (R-Berkeley/Morgan, 15) and Craig Blair (R-Berkeley/Morgan, 15) voted in favor, while Sen. John Unger (D-Berkeley/Jefferson, 16) voted against. The Bill is now with the House Judiciary Committee.  The Bill is worded to apply to county governments as well as cities.

SB 458 is nearly identical to the Michigan Death Star bill. In fact, it is worse in some ways. It would retroactively invalidate any local ordinances that regulate matters the bill now would declare off limits to local governments. In addition to prohibiting local governments from regulating wages, benefits, paid leave, strikes and apprenticeship programs, SB 458 would preempt any effort by local government to restrict what information a private employer requests on an employment application. And in an obvious concession to certain business interests, SB 458 would preempt any local regulation of consumer products or their packaging. Think plastic grocery bags.

The retroactivity provision of SB 458 would invalidate several current West Virginia city Human Rights ordinances that regulate what a private employer may ask on an employment application. A non-exhaustive survey shows that Charleston (Code 62-81 (2)(a)), Beckley (Art IV, 10-450 (2)(a)), and Martinsburg (Code 154.03 (2)(a)) all have such ordinances.

It is no coincidence that the Death Star bills in Michigan and West Virginia are so similar. Both were taken from “model” laws written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), of which Sen. Rucker is State Chair. ALEC was formed and is funded by big business and the notorious billionaire Koch brothers. It is determined to strangle local democracy because it rightly sees the normally more progressive cities as a threat to the libertarian agenda.

West Virginia’s local governments cannot be responsive to local needs and interests if their power to act is snuffed out from the start by conservative Republicans in the state legislature. Stopping SB 458 deserves your attention and action.