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Most in W.Va. want higher coal tax, poll shows

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A substantial majority of West Virginians favor a proposal to increase taxes on coal operators to create a long-term fund to help diversify the state's economy, according to a new survey conducted for the Union of Concerned Scientists.

More than two-thirds of those surveyed by Lake Research Associates support the idea of using natural resources taxes for a "future fund," of the sort promoted by the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, a progressive think tank. Sixty-nine percent of those polled support a 1 percent increase in coal taxes, while 19 percent opposed such a move. Seventy percent support setting aside a portion of natural gas taxes for the program, while 12 percent were opposed, according to survey results released Thursday.

Jeremy Richardson, a Union of Concerned Scientists fellow who is studying coal and climate change, said he was surprised by the results -- especially those supporting an increase in taxes on the state's troubled coal industry.

"I thought that was just going to be dead in the water," said Richardson, a West Virginia native from a mining family.

Richardson said that the results support the notion that West Virginians can both support some level of continued coal mining, but also want state political leaders to focus on diversification of the energy sector and the broader economy.

"It's not that people are against the coal industry," Richardson said. "They just want there to be other options."

As part of Richardson's work exploring coal production and ways to create more diverse economic opportunities in West Virginia, the Union of Concerned Scientists commissioned Lake Research, headed by Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, to survey state residents about energy issues, environmental matters, and what they'd like the future to look like.

Lake's group surveyed 407 registered West Virginia voters June 12-16. The survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.

The survey results generally reflect broad support for the coal industry, but also backing of measures to reduce pollution, such as strong enforcement of the federal Clean Water Act.

"People support the jobs, but they want to have clean water for their kids," Richardson said.

West Virginians who were surveyed were concerned about the impact of environmental rules on industry, but also expressed strong support for increased focus on renewable energy. More than half said that the state should begin to transition to an economy that relies less on coal jobs.

"These numbers underscore a significant attitudinal shift among constituencies that have traditionally been coal's strongest supporters, and undercut the traditional narrative that West Virginians are not ready to embrace a 21st century economy that prioritizes growth and diversification over rigid allegiance to coal companies," Lake Research said in a memo summarizing the poll results. "Voters want to re-examine the role of coal, renewables, and economic diversification in West Virginia, and overwhelmingly believe the coal industry should pay its fair share in order to invest in new economic development, infrastructure repair, education and job training programs."

Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, said he hopes the survey results help persuade lawmakers to create a "future fund" of the sort his group has been pushing for several years.

Such a program would put money from coal and gas taxes aside, with interest on the balance being spent every year to help improve infrastructure, economic development and educational programs that would diversify the state's economy.

"This survey underscores the state's support for creating a future fund," Boettner said. "This fund would ensure that West Virginia always benefits from our vast natural resource wealth."

Boettner's group is working with Richardson on a Sept. 4 forum in Charleston to discuss ways to improve economic development efforts in the state. Information about the forum is available online at http://www.eventzilla.net/web/event?eventid=2138985727.

Richardson said that his group decided to release the survey results this week in the wake of President Obama's proposed climate change action plan, which was harshly criticized by most West Virginia political leaders.

"My hope is that this survey that we did will help change the conversation," Richardson said. "There is space for political leaders to argue that we're not trying to kill the coal industry, we're trying to create more opportunities for our kids."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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