As the year winds down, I’ve polled our news reporters and compiled my list of the Top 16 stories of 2016. I’ll roll them out over the next several days. Feel free to tell me whether you agree or disagree. Today, 8-5.
No. 8: Court Stops Clean Power Plan. The cornerstone of the Obama administration’s efforts to put the coal industry out of business is the Clean Power Plan. The EPA, without Congressional approval, sought to remake the country’s energy industry by setting virtually unattainable carbon emission standards for power plants. West Virginia and two dozen other states fought back, arguing the EPA exceeded its authority. In a 5-4 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court took the unusual move of temporarily blocking implementation of the rule. The issue has not yet been fully adjudicated, but President-elect Donald Tump has promised to dump the controversial rule.
No. 7: West Virginia Becomes Right-to-Work State. Business leaders have long argued that West Virginia needed a right-to-work law, but they never had the political power to make that happen. That changed when Republicans gained control of the Legislature in 2014. During the 2016 session they passed a right-to-work bill. Governor Tomblin vetoed it, but the Republican majorities overrode the veto. The law is on hold while labor unions challenge it in the courts. The Legislature also repealed the state’s prevailing wage law which set hourly pay rates for publicly funded projects. Again, Tomblin’s veto was overridden.
No. 6: Lawmakers Battle Over Budget. Lawmakers and Governor Tomblin struggled to agree on a spending plan for FY 2017. Declining revenues and disagreements over taxes, cuts and borrowing pushed the Legislature into a special session to try to craft a spending plan all sides could accept. Finally in mid June, after 17 days and with the new fiscal year just two weeks away, an agreement was reached on a compromise that raised the tax on cigarettes by 65-cents a pack, to $1.20, cut spending by $112 million and borrowed $64 million from the Rainy Day Fund. Nobody was very happy with the deal, but it did plug the budget hole and avoided a government shutdown. The fix was only a short reprieve; budget forecasters predict at least a $400 million shortfall in the FY 2018 budget, which the new governor and lawmakers are already trying to fix.
No. 5: Opioid Crisis Hits Home. West Virginia emerged as ground zero in the opioid crisis in 2016. Addicts, who started out on readily-available prescription pain killers, moved on to more powerful and dangerous drugs after law enforcement and the medical community cracked down on the over-the-counter drugs. Overdoses from heroin, fentanyl and carfentanyl soared. In Huntington, 26 people had to be treated for overdoses in just one afternoon. The drug epidemic has put a strain on families, social services and law enforcement and Governor-elect Jim Justice has said that fighting the drug problem is a top priority. Meanwhile, as the year drew to a close, West Virginia reached a settlement with prescription drug distributors Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen in a lawsuit over the massive amounts of addictive pain medication that have been shipped to state pharmacies. Details of the settlement will be announced next month.