26 January 2007

The 78th Legislature, Episode I: Our Story So Far

The Legislature will hit the one-third mark of its 60-day regular session on Monday. Among the highlights to date:

BEHIND-THE-SCENES ARM-TWISTING. Though both the table games bill and Gov. Joe Manchin's teacher pay raise proposal have yet to be introduced, each has dominated the talks featuring lawmakers, the administration and the affected special interest groups. Team Manchin quietly yet successfully pressed the racetracks into doubling the potential tax on the casino games while pledging some of the proceeds for seniors. The administration also stuck to its proposed pay raise levels while launching a counter-offensive to dissuade its critics.

AILING LAWMAKERS. No-show Delegate Ron Thompson, D-Raleigh, has blamed an undisclosed medical condition for a continued absence from the Legislature that began back to early 2006. But two other lawmakers have missed parts of this session because of more apparent health problems. Sen. Bill Sharpe, D-Lewis, is recovering from 10-hour brain surgery performed to treat an aneurysm. Sharpe turned 78 last month. Delegate Joe Talbott, D-Webster, meanwhile spent his 74th birthday in the hospital this week as he continues to deal with complications from a heart attack suffered in November (his family believes the outcome would have been a lot worse, had he not been in Charleston for Manchin's special session on taxes).

GUFFAWS AND CRICKETS. If the Senate has a Shecky Greene, it's Sharpe, and his obvious anxiety over the upcoming operation did not stop him from cracking wise in a floor speech before beginning his leave of absence last week. He told his colleagues he hoped the surgeons did not take too much of his brain, else he feared he would end up a Republican... In the House, newly minted Judiciary Chairwoman Carrie Webster, D-Kanawha, asked her fellow delegates to welcome members of the ACLU and West Virginia Free, an abortion rights coalition, who were in the public galleries during a recent floor session. Lawmakers routinely point out guests during the session, to at least polite applause. The reaction to these two groups suggests they rank right up there with NAMBLA. Yeah, that was awkward...

Quote of the Day

"He was looking directly at me, giving me the finger and just ran into the guardrail."

-- Kanawha County Sheriff Mike Rutherford, telling the Charleston Daily Mail about a Thursday evening encounter with an alleged drunken driver.

CORRECTION: I goofed by attributing Thursday's quote to Sen. Ed Bowman. It actually came from Forrest "Jack" Bowman. My apologies.

The Legislature, Day 17 - Updated

Gov. Joe Manchin isn't budging from his pay proposals for teachers and other public workers. He has released spending projections in a bid to silence advocates of higher raises and dissuade lawmakers from heeding them.

The Register-Herald of Beckley reports on a different approach to improving teacher pay, by allowing counties to devote more property tax revenue to their school systems. The Journal of Martinsburg has also previewed the expected bill, which I hope to tackle once it's introduced.

UPDATE: A colleague recommends this Daily Mail article from earlier in the week, which weighs state teacher salaries against the cost of living. Team Manchin also sought to provide this context with its recently released figures.

Lottery Director John Musgrave will resume his pitch to the House Finance Committee this morning, to follow up on questions raised Thursday about grabbing a larger share of potential racetrack table games proceeds for the state.

The Associated Press will provide a major overview of the table games issue Sunday, as this session's bill is expected to debut in the coming week.

The Charleston Gazette also reports on the dollar signs in Lottery's and lawmakers' eyes. Public Broadcasting, meanwhile, rounds out its week-long look at table games with its Outlook program, which will air again this morning and Sunday at noon. Its show The Legislature Today will host Senate Majority Leader Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, for its 6:30 p.m. call-in show this evening (1-800-672-9672).

Mine safety also remains an issue this session, with lawmakers pursuing measures beyond what Manchin has proposed in his legislative agenda. The AP's Tom Breen reports.

MetroNews follows up on tobacco tax proposals examined earlier by AP for Tobacco Free Day. And Talkline's Hoppy Kercheval previews what he predicts will be the high-profile abortion bill this session, a measure targeting Medicaid funding.

UPDATE: The Daily Mail today reports on campaign finance measures and future funding for both the popular Courtesy Patrol and state mapping board.

Also, Legislative Services offers its weekly wrap-up.

25 January 2007

Delegate Thompson Gets A Reprieve

In a letter to the House speaker, MIA Delegate Ron Thompson, D-Raleigh, blames a mystery "medical condition" for his continued absence but says he plans to return to the Legislature by Feb. 5.

The response to the ultimatum issued by the speaker last week prompted the House Rules Committee today to postpone any further action on Thompson until then.

Elected to a 7th two-year term in November, Thompson remains ineligible to collect his $15,000-a-year salary until he takes his oath of office.

UPDATE: A longer version of the story is here.

I Say "Table Games," You See $$$

Racetrack officials may have to fall back and regroup after the House Finance Committee discussed demanding an even larger share of the potential proceeds from casino table games (the story is also here).

Gov. Joe Manchin had recently persuaded the tracks to double the tax on gross proceeds to 24 percent in the expected bill.

But House Finance members suggested today that the rate should be 34 percent, equal to what the tracks initially pay for their video lottery terminals.

Lottery Director John Musgrave, meanwhile, wants to see the tracks each pay $2.5 million a year for a table games license. Prior versions of the bill set no such fee.

UPDATE: The state Racing Association seeks to take the talk of a bigger take in stride.

Quote of the Day

"The word ‘tacky’ comes to mind."

-- Retired WVU law professor Jack Bowman, quoted by The Charleston Gazette on election campaign fundraisers held during the legislative session.

The Legislature, Day 16

As Thursday is Tobacco Free Day at the Legislature, I have reviewed several related measures including some proposed cigarette and tobacco tax hikes (the story is also here).

The AP's Tom Breen continues his coverage of legislation addressing the state's deadly dealings with methadone. The Charleston Gazette also has a story on the bill.

AP also reports on one state senator's approach to the daunting challenge of energy independence.

The Herald-Dispatch in Huntington looks at the emerging debate over regional jail fees, which have drained revenues from Cabell and other counties. (Warning: the H-D page keeps crashing my browsers)

Delegate Thompson Comes Up For Air - UPDATED

MIA Delegate Ron Thompson has replied to the ultimatum issued via certified mail last week by House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne and no relation.

The speaker's office said it received the written response today. Its contents won't be divulged, however, until the House Rules Committee meets after Thursday's floor session.

UPDATE: Citing an unnamed "close relative," the Register-Herald of Beckley reports Thursday that that no-show delegate is claiming a medical problem but plans to return to the House on Feb. 5.

A Wednesday Register-Herald story said the Raleigh County Democrat had failed to answer a traffic citation in Beckley Municipal Court on Tuesday. The paper reports this morning that Thompson's ticket has been paid.

24 January 2007

The Legislature, Day 15: Fun Facts

Bills introduced to date: 732 (524 in House, 208 in Senate)

Bills passed at least one chamber: 12 (7 by House, 5 by Senate); 1.6% of total.

Bills sent to the governor: 1 (HB2105, meant to relieve teacher shortages via substitutes)

Manchin legislative proposals introduced as bills: 15

Tonight, legislators are invited to party with: the Heritage Foundation.

The Legislature, Day 15: Table Games -- UPDATED

Though this year's version of the racetrack table games bill is not yet ready for prime time, the surrounding buzz prompted a raft of stories today.

I focused on the behind-the-scenes involvement of Gov. Joe Manchin and his Lottery officials, who are pressing the bill's authors on such issues as a 24 percent state "tax" rate and funding for seniors (the story can also be found here and here).

The racetrack folks tell me that Team Manchin has been fairly insistent. Annual and one-time fees charged to the tracks, on top of the gross proceeds tax, are also matters of contention.

But as I also point out, all this talk of revenue is moot unless voters somehow approve these games. The Charleston Gazette starts off on this topic, underscoring the tracks' desire to have countywide elections.

The Register-Herald of Beckley also has a table games story, as does MetroNews. Hoppy Kercheval opines on the issue as well in his column today.

And Public Broadcasting continues its week-long focus on table games with the Rev. Dennis Sparks of the W. Va. Council of Churches as this evening's guest on The Legislature Today.

Sparks is among the leading foes of legalized gambling in the Mountain State. He told me yesterday that his coalition is gearing up for the looming fight.

UPDATE: The Charleston Daily Mail lends its editorial voice to the issue, opining in favor of table games today. They also offered an overview of the issue earlier.

23 January 2007

Going Private

The New York Times reports that Illinois has begun the process of selling its state lottery system, a new wrinkle in an emerging trend of privatizing components of state (and sometimes local) government.

The article notes that Indiana recently privatized toll roads, and is also considering shedding its lottery. Pennsylvania and New Jersey are considering a similar route for their turnpikes.

West Virginia lawmakers have weighed privatizing its turnpike as they grapple with the future of its governing authority and that agency's money-losing Tamarack center.

Interestingly, Senate Minority Leader Don Caruth, R-Mercer, opposes privatizing the turnpike. He recently declared that a worse idea than keeping its tolls.

Lawmakers and the Division of Highways, however, both appear willing to embrace allowing private companies to run tolls on new roads to recoup their building costs under public-private agreements.

The Legislature, Day 14

This month's deadly apartment building fire in Huntington has spurred state Fire Marshal Sterling Lewis to lobby the Legislature to mandate sprinklers in certain buildings.

Lawmakers are also considering a measure to require drug testing of high school athletes. Such testing would focus mainly on football, baseball, wrestling, track and field, and swimming (cross country appears a glaring oversight).

The House Judiciary Committee could weigh changing how West Virginia enforces child support orders after learning Monday that past-due support exceeds $700 million (another take on this topic is here).

An Eastern Panhandle delegate, meanwhile, wants West Virginia to adopt an Old Dominion law that limits handgun sales to one per month. The city of Charleston enacted a similar ordinance in the 1990s to great controversy.

As legislators begin to craft a new state budget, the agency that runs the Cultural Center (home of Mountain Stage, the state archives and the still-closed state museum) wants nearly $2.6 million to upgrade fire protection measures there.

And though not as numerous as teachers, the state's corrections officers have also begun to press lawmakers for raises larger than what Gov. Joe Manchin has proposed. A group of them picketed in Moundsville on Monday, and a larger contingent is expected to lobby at the Capitol on Jan. 29.

22 January 2007

Quote of the Day

"Perhaps if we put the money in libraries now, they wouldn't end up in jails when they got older."

-- J.D. Waggoner, secretary of the state Library Commission, lamenting the move by several counties to cut library funding to cover regional jail costs.

The Legislature, Day 13: Fun Facts

Bills introduced to date: 585 (413 in House, 172 in Senate)

Proposals from Gov. Joe Manchin presented as legislation: 13

Today is: Agriculture & Conservation Day; Grange Day; Wyoming County Day

Tonight, legislators have been invited to party with: W.Va. Municipal League

The Legislature, Day 13 -- Updated

The Associated Press' Tom Breen kicks off the week with a look at legislative proposals targeting drug abuse and fatal overdoses in the Mountain State.

A top concern of lawmakers is methadone. The Charleston Gazette was perhaps the first in the country to report the spate of deaths nationwide blamed on the drug, even when it was used as prescribed. West Virginia has led the nation in per-capita methadone-related deaths.

The AP also continued its scrutiny of Gov. Joe Manchin's proposed budget by examining the $1.5 million earmarked for a flood wall in Pocahontas County.

Public Broadcasting wades into the debate over table games with various sides of the issue appearing on its Legislature Today program all this week. Lottery Director John Musgrave will start things off on Monday. Tuesday will pit Sen. Andy McKenzie, R-Ohio, against Delegate Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell.

The Gazette's Phil Kabler takes a quick look at the lobbyists signed up to sway lawmakers this session, while Hoppy Kercheval of MetroNews ponders the future of the Promise scholarship program. Hoppy's take is drawn from Daily Mail coverage of the issue.

UPDATE: The Daily Mail focuses on a pending bill that would tap a new source of jail revenue and the perennial couch-burning bill, while taking another crack at the teacher pay raise issue.

The Gazette also continues its scrutiny of the state Medicaid program, reflecting questions raised by lawmakers about the administration's handling of proposed changes. Prior coverage prompted an op-ed response from Health and Human Resources Secretary Martha Walker. Gazette Editorial Page Editor Dawn Miller weighed in on the topic in her weekend column.

Stating the State of the State

When the media reported on Gov. Joe Manchin's Jan. 10 State of the State address, we focused almost entirely on his legislative and policy proposals for the coming year. With limited space and time, it made sense to highlight what the governor was asking of lawmakers and taxpayers.

But as its title suggests, the address is also supposed to detail the state's recent track record and current health, fiscal and otherwise (and as The Charleston Gazette's Phil Kabler recently noted, the State of the State was not always a speech. It instead began as a document delivered to the Legislature to start the session. This duty is spelled out in the West Virginia Constitution).

Manchin made several representations about the status of West Virginia. Chief among them: "In the last two years, employment in West Virginia has risen by more than 18,000 jobs with approximately $3.5 billion worth of new business investments being made in our state."

The first claim is easy to check, and a review shows Manchin somewhat lowballed it. West Virginia had 753,600 private-sector jobs in December 2004, the month before Manchin took office. The number of jobs grew by 24,200 as of December 2006, the last month for seasonally adjusted figures from WorkForce West Virginia.

I would also note that unemployment grew by one-tenth of 1 percent during that time, to 5.1 percent, with 1,900 more people receiving jobless benefits.

The second claim is tougher to track, and I'll need to do some more research. I can say that corporate net income and business franchise tax collections _ perhaps an indicator of commercial activity _ nearly doubled between fiscal years 2004 and 2006.

West Virginia University's Bureau of Business and Economic Research constantly measures this area, and its more recent findings offer a mixed bag. For instance, the state saw jobs grow by 1.3 percent in 2005, its best showing since 2000. The national job growth rate during that time was 1.5 percent, however.

As for the health of state government, Manchin listed several achievements for 2006. They included
an overall reduction in public employees and nearly $1 billion devoted to pension shortfalls. The latter claim is true, and Manchin extended credit to a "very responsible Legislature" that had made tackling pension debts a priority.

I'm not sure about the decline in state workers. Manchin issued a press release in August boasting
444 fewer positions, a drop of 1.5 percent, that did not count the privatization of the workers' compensation program. Again, additional research is required.