02 February 2007

The Legislature: Table Games

The House of Delegates started the ball rolling for the racetrack table games bill with the public hearing hosted jointly by its Judiciary and Finance committees. Each panel has been assigned to review House Bill 2718, starting with Judiciary.

With several dozen speakers addressing lawmakers, I tried to include as many of the representative groups as possible in The Associated Press' story: local officials (pro), families ravaged by gambling (con and pro, actually), anti-gambling activists (con), and racetrack workers, racing industry people and chamber of commerce types (all pro).

As I point out, supporters outnumbered foes among the speakers by more than 3:1. But I expect anti-gambling forces to show their strength during a rally next week. I also note that lawmakers heard many of these arguments _ and from a number of the same people, both pro and con _ during public hearings held for prior, failed incarnations of the bill.

Among others covering the hearing: The Register-Herald of Beckley starts off with the wife of a gambling addict (who also spoke a previous session's hearing); The Charleston Gazette focuses on the supporters' superior numbers; MetroNews gives a smattering of comments plus audio; W.Va. Media, meanwhile, has a story as well as video.

01 February 2007

The Legislature: Bills of Every Stripe...UPDATED

With nearly 1,200 bills introduced to date and more on the way, lawmakers are considering plenty of issues beyond pay raises, table games and taxes. We can't write about them all, but we do try to depart from the beaten path on occasion:

* The Associated Press highlights one attempt to deter copper and metal thefts. Brazen acts of pilfering have popped up here and all over the country. Those two hapless souls who got lost while, er, exploring an idled underground mine come to mind.

* The Register-Herald of Beckley reports on the drive to add more circuit judges statewide, fueled by a recent state Supreme Court-commissioned study. MetroNews also has a story.

* MetroNews takes up a bill championed by Secretary of State Betty Ireland and female lawmakers that aims to aid domestic violence victims. The Charleston Gazette reports on that bill as well.

* On its Outlook program this evening, Public Broadcasting will review proposals targeting illegal labor as it revisits the subject of immigrant workers in West Virginia. The program will air again on Sunday.

* Looking at a non-starter this session, the AP hears from consumer advocates who declare the payday lending issue dead in West Virginia.

* And though it's not a bill, the Daily Mail weighs an item from Gov. Joe Manchin's State of the State address: his drive to link future grant funding for counties to their anti-litter efforts.

UPDATE: The Gazette scrutinizes a bill that coincides with Raleigh County's deadly propane explosion, amid its continuing coverage of that accident. According to the article, the West Virginia Propane Gas Dealers Association seeks to regulate who can handle propane equipment and appliances, including tanks like the one involved in the fatal blast. House Bill 2733 also offers the industry some liability protections.

The Legislature, Day 22: Libraries - UPDATED

Thursday is Library Day at the Legislature, and trouble looms for West Virginia's county-based libraries.

Staff, patrons and supporters fear lawmakers will repeal a series of special laws that require a number of counties to devote property tax revenue to their libraries.

A recent state Supreme Court ruling found the school aid formula cheats those counties as written. The ruling requires the Legislature to act by July 1, else the school aid formula is deemed unconstitutional.

West Virginia ranks 6th in the country for state funding of libraries, but that could change this session. A Library Commission official recently complained that the state is among the worst for local funding of libraries.

Even some lawmakers say their local librarians are spending as much time traveling the community or even the state to raise funds, as they are tending to the stacks and shushing people.

UPDATE: The Associated Press' Shaya Tayefe Mohajer will have a story detailing the issue, but today she remains in the thick of reporting on the terrible gas station explosion in Raleigh County. Her admirable coverage of this tragedy has been picked up worldwide.

The Wheeling News-Register, though, offers a local view of libraries feeling the crunch.


The week began with rumblings about a bulls-eye painted on the state's effort, still in its infancy, to deliver lower prescription drug costs for public health care programs.

The playing field changed this morning when the Pharmaceutical Cost Management Council voted at an emergency meeting to withdraw its proposed financial disclosure rule. The Associated Press' Tom Breen appears to have been the first with the story.

Breen's story is also here, and will be updated soon. MetroNews is also reporting on this, and has audio from key lawmakers on the topic.

Advocates of this effort consider advertising and promotional spending disclosures key to negotiating with the industry.

The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America has a different approach, reflected by an ongoing multi-state bus tour. TV talk show host Montel Williams helped kick off the tour at the Capitol last month. Gov. Joe Manchin joined Montel at his W.Va. appearance.

Quote of the Day

‘‘Somebody could slap them around, you know, and nobody could do anything about it if the guards aren’t there.’’

-- Sen. Shirley Love, D-Fayette, remarking on letters from West Virginia prison inmates in support of pay raises for corrections officers. Love's district includes the Mount Olive prison, where one in three guards quit in 2005. Turnover statewide for corrections officers rose to 20 percent, officials say.

An Unexpected Endorsement

The Associated Press' Tom Breen explores an interesting wrinkle in the ongoing push to improve corrections salaries. Inmates are writing lawmakers in support of pay raises.

These letters express an interesting point: just as corrections officers protect the public from these prisoners, they also protect inmates from each other.

West Virginia has seen turnover worsen among corrections staff in recent years. One in five statewide quit in 2005; at the Mount Olive prison, one in three left.

Officers warned legislators about the dangers of staffing shortages over the course of several monthly interim meetings. They underscored their message on Monday, Corrections Day at the Legislature.

Breen's story was picked up by our national wire. Besides USA Today and other major U.S. dailies, the article found its way to South Africa and other points abroad.

31 January 2007

The Pursuit of Lower Drug Costs

As Congress considers negotiating for lower drug prices for the federal Medicare program, West Virginia continues to weigh its options in this arena.

The Associated Press' Tom Breen reports on a push by several union and consumer-oriented groups to bolster the state's Pharmaceutical Cost Management Council. The Charleston Gazette also has a story.

More Trouble for Sen. White

Word started to float around the Capital late Tuesday morning alleging a brush with the law involving Sen. Randy White, D-Webster. News later emerged that White had been cited by Charleston police for the hit-and-run of a vehicle.

All three Charleston-Huntington television stations also had the story, as does Public Broadcasting and MetroNews. While it is not unheard of for a lawmaker to get in a legal scrape during a 60-day session, White only recently had his 15 minutes of fame.

I am reminded that the West Virginia Constitution immunizes lawmakers from having to appear in court while in session: "Members of the Legislature shall, in all cases except treason, felony, and breach of the peace, be privileged from arrest during the session, and for ten days before and after the same..."

The Legislature: Pay Raises - UPDATED

Each day seems to bring a new bill to vie with Gov. Joe Manchin's pay raise proposals. The latest, a bipartisan measure, would retool the state's school aid formula to free up local property tax revenue for teacher and service personnel salaries.

The Register-Herald of Beckley reports on a competing measure that would satisfy the quest by at least one teacher's group for a 6 percent raise.

UPDATE: Manchin's teacher pay raise bills finally reached the House and Senate today.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, has advanced pay hike proposals for corrections and related officers, The Charleston Gazette reports.

UPDATE: The Charleston Daily Mail reports that the session's pay hike proposal for legislators also includes a boost to their health benefits.

30 January 2007

Let the Games Begin

With the same level of fanfare that marked their two previous-but-doomed attempts, the state's racetracks and their allies unveiled this session's casino table games legislation today.

All four track CEOs were on hand to herald the new bills, joined by other executives, dozens of track workers and a number of their local officials. Charleston Mayor Danny Jones was particularly pointed in his remarks targeting table games opponents.

As I point out in my story, supporters have sought to sweeten the deal by promising some of the proceeds to police, fire and deputy sheriff pension funds. That money is in addition to a higher state tax rate, and a percentage earmarked for thoroughbred and greyhound breeders' funds.

The Associated Press offers a glance of the proposal's highlights.

Though introduced today, the table games legislation has been a topic earlier this session (previous posts here and here).

The Legislature, Day 21: Fun Facts

Bills introduced to date: 1,131

Bills passed by at least one chamber: 22

Bills sent to the governor: 1

Manchin proposals presented as legislation: 17

Today is: Support our Seniors Day

Legislative receptions held to date (bear in mind, they don't meet on weekends): 18

Quote of the Day

“Our manpower is so short that you might have to bring in the National Guard to give us a break.”

-- Cpl. J. Hilewitz, an officer at the maximum-security prison at Mount Olive, in The Charleston Gazette's report on Corrections Day and the quest for higher raises from the Legislature.

Manchin stakes out energy as national issue

Gov. Joe Manchin is starting to get some attention for the "Declaration of Energy Independence" he co-signed Monday with Kentucky's governor. The article by AP Business Writer Tim Huber has shown up in Houston and Atlanta newspapers, among other points, and can also be found here.

The Legislature: Dueling Agendas

Gov. Joe Manchin's legislative agenda has pretty much taken shape for the session. There have been 16 proposals to date, each having a House and Senate version. Two more are expected this week. Last year, the governor had a 19-item legislative agenda.

The Legislature's Democratic leaders do not appear to have a formal list of policy goals. Former House Speaker Bob Kiss sometimes sought to pass a relative handful of bills within a session's first two weeks. But his successor, Speaker Rick Thompson, and Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin have yet to anoint any specific proposals this session.

Enter the Republicans. House and Senate GOP lawmakers plan to hold a 10 a.m. press conference this morning to outline their agenda for the session.

Last year's agenda included abolishing the food tax, curbs on eminent domain and tougher sexual predator laws. The Legislature passed bills for each of those issues -- prompting the Republicans to boast that the majority party keeps stealing from their playbook.

Of course, each party's approach has differed. Action on eminent domain, for instance, fell short of the constitutional amendment sought by Republicans, while the Democrats have opted to phase out the food tax over time.

And while most Republicans oppose table games, whether that becomes part of an official agenda remains to be seen. The loss of Ohio County's two House seats should strengthen the GOP's resolve in that chamber (in the House, the 2006 elections shut the Republicans entirely out of the Northern Panhandle; their closest seat is in Tyler County). But two of the Senate's 11 Republicans will be co-sponsoring today's table games bill in that chamber.

29 January 2007

Judge Puts the Kibosh on Teacher Pension Merger - UPDATED

I take a crack today at last week's ruling that nixes the state's plan to merge its two teacher retirement programs. I hope to update with further comment later.

The Charleston Daily Mail has its take as well.

As I first noted on this topic, props to MetroNews for apparently breaking the story. Talkline's Hoppy Kercheval follows up in his column.

UPDATE: The Consolidated Public Retirement Board has posted the judge's order online. The board has also helpfully posted other documents from the case.

A Thousand Bills

There are now more than 1,000 bills floating around the Legislature, and we've only completed a third of the session.

Filings today and Friday were particularly heavy as we've hit the deadline for introducing rules bills. This legislation authorizes the rules that state agencies and programs need to operate, and by my count they represent one out of every five bills introduced.

Another popular topic this session is crime and punishment: nearly 11 percent of the bills would create new offenses, stiffen or change punishments for existing crimes or address the probation or parole systems.

About 8 percent of the bills involve taxes (almost all propose cuts, credits or exemptions).

The Charleston Gazette's Phil Kabler reports that there is huge backlog in the office that drafts bills for introduction (third item in column).

I count 1,063 bills as of today, while there were 1,352 bills introduced as of Day 20 of last year's session. That reflected about 58 percent of the eventual total.

Most Senate bills this session must be introduced by Feb. 19, while that deadline in the House is Feb. 23 (the session ends March 10).

Charnock not yet off the hook

After keeping the lowest of profiles for more than a year, the Bill Charnock probe has been given a shot in the arm, according to The Charleston Gazette.

A judge has given the special prosecutor in the case more time and latitude to investigate Charnock's conduct while head of the state's Prosecuting Attorney's Institute. (Evidence of how off-the-radar this matter has been: Judge Paul Zakaib apparently signed the order extending the special prosecutor's term back in November...)

The probe was sparked by a legislative audit that found that Charnock had used the institute to run his successful, 2004 campaign for Kanawha County prosecutor as well as prior campaigns for two of his siblings. (This audit also involved ex-U.S. Attorney Kasey Warner, and offers a possible reason behind Warner's abrupt removal from that appointed post)

Charnock has chalked up the audit to politics, and similarly regards previous reports (here and here) questioning his tenure at the institute. He tells the Gazette that he intends to serve out his four-year term.

The Legislature, Day 20

No one seems happy with the pay raises recommended by Gov. Joe Manchin (though some lawmakers appear glad he endorsed their proposed salary hike). In the wake of teachers and other public workers rallying at the Capitol for higher increases, West Virginia's corrections officers will make their pitch today and in uniform. The story is also here, and MetroNews offers its take on Corrections Day as well.

With the session's table games bill expected Tuesday, The Associated Press offers an overview of the issue and how this year's bid (and bill) departs from previous, failed attempts.

The Charleston Gazette's Phil Kabler is predicting that the Legislature will declaw the state's nascent program to wrestle price concession from prescription drug makers.

A Record Verdict?

I've covered the courts of this state since 1993, and I don't recall a jury verdict of this size: nearly $405 million awarded Saturday in a class-action lawsuit in Roane County Circuit Court. The case involves around 8,000 plaintiffs who sued over natural gas royalty payments. Punitive damages account for two-thirds of the verdict.

The Associated Press first reported the verdict Saturday, while The Times Record of Spencer offers some background about the trial. Defendant NiSource issued a statement Sunday calling the verdict "unprecedented and excessive," and warning it "could have a chilling effect on oil and natural gas development in the state."

UPDATE: The Charleston Gazette has an article today on the verdict and its potential impact.

UPDATE: I've added a link above to the AP story.

28 January 2007

Sunday roundup

Credit goes to MetroNews for being perhaps the only media outfit to report on a Friday ruling that appears to derail the state's planned merger of its two teacher retirement programs.

The teachers' 401(k)-style plan was closed to new members, and enrollees voted in a special election to move to the older, traditional pension plan.

But the lawsuit from objecting enrollees had previously blocked the slated merger, pending the final ruling. Legislation had closed the new plan, re-opened the older one and set up the special election. Further action by lawmakers may now be required, though the state can also appeal.

The Associated Press also highlights West Virginia's latest effort to combat rampant obesity, this time by targeting its Medicaid population.

W.Va. schools face yet another threat

Already pressed to retool the state's school aid formula and carve out extra funding for teacher pay raises, the Legislature now faces the potential loss of $2 million to West Virginia's education system after a federal rural aid program expired last year.

(Props to Associated Press bureau-mate Shaya Tayefe Mohajer, whose look at the possible national impact got great "play," as we say. Besides a prominent place on the front page of the Sunday Gazette-Mail, her article also made the "A" section of the Sunday New York Times.)