ELKINS - As the state's chief legal officer, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey sees the economic climate in West Virginia as a top priority for his office.
"We have to create a more dynamic business climate in the state," Morrisey said in an interview at The Inter-Mountain's offices Wednesday afternoon. "We have to start rising in the economic rankings. We can't afford to be ranked 48, 49 or 50. I want the attorney general's office to do everything in its power to help West Virginia reach its economic potential."
As an example, he pointed to legal opinions that allow Lewis and Tyler counties to partner with private business to digitize the counties' property and mineral records.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey speaks to Tucker County residents during a town hall gathering Wednesday at the courthouse. (The Inter-Mountain photo by Beth Christian Broschart)
"That can generate a lot of economic growth," Morrisey said. "If there is more economic activity because people can have better access to records and don't have to wait weeks or months, that's a great thing."
Morrisey said his office is determined to have a vigorous but fair enforcement regime.
"Businesses know they have to comply with the law," he said. "We just want them to know things are going to be handled in a professional, non-arbitrary manner."
The second priority for his office is "to fight these outrageous regulations that are coming out of the EPA," Morrisey said, adding he believed if regulations such as the carbon rule are allowed to stand, "they will have a devastating affect on the West Virginia economy."
As the state's chief legal officer, he said it was his job to challenge federal regulations when they violate the rule of law.
"We think there is no better example of a violation of the rule of law than the (federal) EPA's carbon rule known as the 111(d) rule," Morrisey said, explaining that if the rule is finalized it will be devastating to the state's coal mining industry, and will have an effect on the price of electricity in the state and across the country. He said the rule will also have a negative effect on job growth.
"At a time when federal money flowing out of Washington is slowing down, we can't afford to have the EPA throw such a terrible wrench into the works," he said, adding he believes the rule is illegal and vowed his office would challenge it. He said they may not win the first or second time but in the end he thinks they will prevail. "Its just going to take time."
Another priority for his office is to ensure that "we continue to handle our day-to-day functions in the highest quality manner possible." Morrisey cited the office's consumer protection program, saying he wanted to make sure people know no state is going to be more active in terms of educational outreach.
"We are pretty proactive in educating people about these scams," he said. "We've put a lot of time and energy into modernizing the consumer protection system."
He said consumers could now go on his office's website, click a link, and fill out a complaint form and file it electronically. In the past, the form could be printed out but still required mailing in.
"We want to streamline these processes and make it easier for consumers to interact with their government," he said.
"Having additional transparency, having good, ethical practices and ensuring that everyone complies with the rule of law - individuals, consumers, businesses and the federal government. No one is above the law. That's the difference we're trying to make in West Virginia. I think we are doing some good things but we have a lot of work to do. We have a lot of challenges and I'm not going to stop until we solve more and more challenges.
"When it comes to running the office, we are blind to economic status or political affiliation," Morrisey said. "We represent over 60 different state agencies and boards, and at the same time we speak for the legal interests of people. You have to make sure you're handling both of those functions to the best of your ability even if sometimes they do collide."
On the subject of abortion, Morrisey acknowledged his office has taken a lot of heat for its support in the Legislature of efforts to put some limits in place on how abortions are performed in the state.
"Right now there are none in terms of specific time periods," he said, noting West Virginia is one of nine states where abortion is permitted right up until birth. He said that needs to be changed and "West Virginia needs to look at ways we can protect unborn children. I don't think it's right that you can have a legal abortion up until birth."
Morrisey pointed out his office was a proponent of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection bill in the Legislature. This act would have prohibited abortion after the 19th week of pregnancy except in limited circumstance to protect the mother's life. Morrisey said that had the bill passed, he would have defended it in court.
He pointed out that in West Virginia you don't have to be a physician to perform an abortion. Because the language in the statute is unclear, "what we know is that you don't have to be a physician," he said. "There are arguments about other people who can be involved. Presumably you have to be a medical personnel of some sort." He said that is an area of the law that needs clarified.
On the subject of better government accountability, Morrisey said his office has been an advocate of more audits in state government.
"Through the Department of Agriculture audit, through the Attorney General's Office audit, we've seen that there is far more fraud, waste and abuse in the system that needs to be rooted out," he said, pointing out he had called for expanding the number of audits that occur. "I think it's critical that we do everything in our power to save money in state government."
Morrisey cited the Agriculture Department as one example of how government can function out of control if it doesn't have adequate oversight. He advocated audits every two years or, at a minimum, every four.
Another example was in his own office. Two audits of his predecessor's tenure showed that many consumer claims hadn't been paid. Morrisey said staff members spent six months making sure all money owed to consumers was paid out.
"One of the reasons I ran for office was to provide more transparency to state government," he said.
On transparency in his office, he explained "there are certain limitations under the law that our office can't go around." As an example, if there is pending litigation, there are limitations in the law governing what his office can say. He also pointed out that his staff often can't even confirm whether there is an ongoing investigation.
Morrisey said he believes there needs to be a greater focus on rooting out corruption in state government.
"I've been a strong advocate of focusing on restoring public integrity across the state," he said, noting that was why a public integrity unit was established. "Some of the work that we've done in Mingo Country and some other areas have been very beneficial." He said working with other state agencies and with county prosecutors was a good thing.
Morrisey explained his office represented the legal interests of the state. In that area, he said he wanted people to think of his office as "a high quality law firm, a firm with integrity."
Nationally, he wants people to think of his office as one of the best attorney general's offices in the country.
"One of the best ways to do that is to make sure that you're known as one that is acting with ethics and principle all the time," he said. " I believe we have."