10 February 2007

The Legislature, Day 31 - Updated

* I spoke with House Finance Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo, as The Associated Press previews the next hurdle facing the racetrack table games bill, now that it has cleared the House Judiciary Committee.

(UPDATE: The amended bill no longer earmarks revenues specifically for deputy, police and firefighter pensions. It instead devotes shares to all 55 counties and 204 municipalities statewide, with larger percentages for the tracks' hosts. But Huntington city officials and others trying to tackle local pension shortfalls remain pessimistic about getting help this session, as Bryan Chambers reports in the Herald-Dispatch.)

I also note that the tracks are not happy with the bigger bite the state would take, while gambling opponents will try again to kill the bill. MetroNews also takes a look ahead, while providing audio from two of the sides in this debate.

* The Legislature has sent Gov. Joe Manchin a bill that would raise the age at which potential jurors can be excused, as the AP's Tom Breen reports.

* Breen also marks the Senate's passage of the so-called Castle Doctrine bill addressing lethal self-defense, while noting that some original supporters are not pleased with the current version.

* The AP also reviews a bill that would create a state pension program for public EMS workers.

* The Charleston Daily Mail highlights legislation that would allow the permanent tracking of certain sex offenders with GPS technology, among other measures.

* In the latest Wrap-Up newsletter, there is also an interesting story about the black lawmakers who have served in the Legislature.

Written by Deputy Director Drew Ross of the office of Reference & Information, the article answers some of the questions I had pondered earlier on the topic.

* Public Broadcasting reports on a stream protection bill and a critic of the measure with an alleged conflict of interest (audio link).

09 February 2007

Ron Thompson - A Final Note

Media scrutiny in the Ron Thompson affair is turning toward who might succeed the ousted delegate in the 27th House District. The local Register-Herald of Beckley poses that question.

My earlier confusion resolved, I've looked at the 16 delegates who recorded nay votes on the Thompson resolution. Interestingly, 10 of them held major or minor leadership posts under former Speaker Bob Kiss. But 7 have leadership titles under Speaker Rick Thompson, and there is a pretty thorough overlap between the two groups.

Quote of the Day

"There are always things that come up that you would not reasonably anticipate... I think we've been dealing with them appropriately."

-- Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, on his first 30 days as the leader of the House of Delegates.

Table Games Bill Wins A Hand - UPDATED

After at least three years of trying, a racetrack table games bill was endorsed late Thursday by the House Judiciary Committee.

But the 14-11 victory came at a cost to the tracks. The committee jacked up the proposed tax rate on gross proceeds from 24 percent to 35 percent. (I earlier noted that the tracks had hoped to start the haggling at 12 percent)

The committee also increased the annual license fees by a far greater margin: from $24,000 a year to $1.5 million for the initial license and $2.5 million for annual renewals.

The heavily amended bill, which advances to House Finance, also reconfigures the revenue distributions in several key ways. Besides The Associated Press story, I have a glance outlining the bill's current highlights.

Most of the changes stem from a wide-ranging amendment drafted by the committee's leadership. More than 30 additional amendments were proposed and debated over the course of nearly nine hours. A handful prevailed.

One of the failed amendments would have changed the "No" vote on the local option election ballots to "Heck No."

The Charleston Gazette also stuck around for the duration, as did MetroNews (with audio). Hoppy Kercheval also reflects on yesterday's scene at House Judiciary.

The Charleston Daily Mail, meanwhile, profiles West Virginia Racing Association John Cavacini, one of the bill's chief lobbyists (notice I didn't say point man).

The Legislature hits the midpoint - UPDATED

Though overshadowed by the Ron Thompson situation, Thursday also marked Day 30 of the 60-Day session.

I interviewed Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne and no relation, for The Associated Press' story on the session's halfway point. We also have a glance updating the status of major bills and issues.

The AP's Tom Breen examines legislation that would revive a program once considered an international model, one that trains and then licenses drivers who need high-powered lenses to see.

The Charleston Gazette reports on progress for a bill that would allow the public financing of election campaigns.

The Daily Mail hears from critics of a proposal to mandate HPV vaccinations for the state's 6th-grade girls. The AP's Breen looked at the issue earlier this session.

And MetroNews highlights the push for West Virginia to adopt a deposit bottle law.

UPDATED: Public Broadcasting offers a take on the Legislature's progress so far. And Sen. Mike Hall, R-Putnam, will be the guest on The Legislature Today for its phone-in show this evening. 1-800-672-9672

Ron Thompson is History - UPDATED (again)

The House of Delegates declared Ron Thompson's seat vacant on a voice vote.

It was not unanimous.

As I noted below, the authorities I consulted say Thompson is the first state legislator in West Virginia _ and perhaps the country _ to lose his seat for refusing to take his oath of office.

The Raleigh County Democrat did not appear for the 9 a.m. House Rules Committee meeting, or for the 11 a.m. floor session where the House approved the resolution.

SIXTEEN delegates recorded "nay" votes afterward. Some later said House leaders should have done more to understand Thompson's situation. Others believe press reports had fanned the flames and accelerated the process.

Thompson's continued absence had also become a distraction in the House and for fellow members of the 27th Delegate District. The district has four other delegates, whose efforts this session have been overshadowed by their no-show colleague.

One of the 27th's remaining members, Delegate Virginia Mahan, D-Summers, was among those recording a "nay" vote.

UPDATED: Ahem. It turns out I was correct the first time. All 16 names submitted after the vote count toward the official record.

In addition to Mahan, nay votes were recorded for: Amores, D-Kanawha; Andes, R-Putnam; Beach, D-Monongalia; Browning, D-Wyoming; Campbell, D-Greenbrier; Craig, D-Cabell; Ennis, D-Brooke; Hutchins, D-Ohio; Long, D-Mercer; Michael, D-Hardy; Pino, D-Fayette; and Varner, D-Marshall.

The additional delegates are Cann, D-Harrison; Kominar, D-Mingo; and Stalnaker, D-Lewis.

08 February 2007

Ron Thompson is History?

Later today, Delegate Ron Thompson may become the first state legislator in West Virginia _ and perhaps the country _ to lose his seat for refusing to take his oath of office, according to the authorities I consulted for this morning's Associated Press story on the subject.

The Raleigh County delegate can still avoid making history by showing up for this morning's 9 a.m. House Rules Committee meeting, or for that matter the 11 a.m. floor session. The resolution declaring his seat vacant is on the session's schedule.

His continued absence has become a distraction in the House and for fellow members of the 27th Delegate District. The district has four other delegates, whose efforts this session have been overshadowed by their no-show colleague.

Thompson's hometown Register-Herald has coverage here and here this morning, while The Charleston Gazette and MetroNews also set the stage for today's possible action.

What's in a Slogan?

State senators continue to spar along party lines over the "Open for Business" slogan added to highway welcome signs by Gov. Joe Manchin.

The Charleston Gazette reports that a pending resolution that had championed the old mainstay "Wild, Wonderful" was replaced Wednesday with a measure commissioning an online poll.

Online polls are also known as voodoo polls. The Gazette's Tom Searls notes that Manchin has "commissioned" an online poll before, regarding the Capitol dome.

The Charleston Daily Mail has beaten Manchin to the punch, and is already offering a poll on the question.

07 February 2007

Still no home for vet statue

Visitors to the West Virginia Capitol Complex appear quite fond of its Veterans' Memorial, with its rosters of the state's war dead etched solemnly in smooth black stone.

Equally popular are the memorial's four bronze statues, each representing a different branch of the military as well as a major conflict of the 20th Century.

Artist Joe Mullins sculpted those larger-than-lifesize figures, with a remarkable eye for detail: there's the gear carried by the World War I "doughboy," for instance, or the flight suit of the Korean War U.S. Air Force fighter pilot.

With similar care, Mullins has carved a fifth statue, to represent West Virginia's female veterans. But the statue remains in a sort of limbo. The apparent reason: the figure is wearing pants instead of a skirt, and some female veterans object.

Public Broadcasting's Scott Finn has a story on the impasse today. The link includes audio from his report, and a link to more info about Mullins and the memorial.

The Legislature, Day 28

Half the session will be over tomorrow, and here are some recent highlights:

* MINE SAFETY. The Associated Press tracks Gov. Joe Manchin's mine safety bill as it advances from the Senate Judiciary Committee. The Charleston Gazette and MetroNews also have stories.

* DRUGS. The Charleston Daily Mail focuses on a bill targeting products that help people mask drug use when tested. Supporters consider it a workplace safety measure.

* TABLE GAMES. The Daily Mail also examines a provision of the racetrack table games bill that would allow the tracks to serve alcohol at all hours, if and when they become full-blown casinos. The AP earlier covered this week's anti-gambling rally at the Capitol, and the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington, MetroNews and the Gazette also have stories.

No-show delegate asks for more time, again

MIA Delegate Ron Thompson, D-Raleigh, apparently faxed a letter to the House speaker this morning, asking to be given until March 1 (when the 60-day session hits Day 51) to return to the Legislature.

The speaker and the rest of the House Rules Committee instead invited Thompson to their Thursday morning meeting, before the full House is expected to take up the resolution that would declare his seat vacant.

UPDATE: Here's a more detailed story, and I plan to have a Thursday article providing some historical and national context.

Quote of the Day

"I still hope he comes and serves."

-- House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, after launching a resolution that would oust no-show Delegate Ron Thompson, D-Raleigh and no relation, from the Legislature. The House is not expected to take up the resolution until Thursday.

06 February 2007

The Legislature, Day 28 - Updated

Amid the buzz surrounding MIA Delegate Ron Thompson, the 2007 legislative session continues.

The Associated Press covered today's rally against the pending racetrack table games bill. About 50 people showed up for the event, compared to the hundreds who gathered last week in support of the measure. The respective turnouts may not indicate the bill's fate, however. MetroNews also has a story, with audio.

Both AP and the Charleston Daily Mail examine efforts targeting the hiring of illegal workers.

And the AP and The Charleston Gazette each relays a request from the State Police for help with protecting children from sexual predators prowling the Internet.

(Anybody else see a pattern here...?)

UPDATE: The AP's Tom Breen explores Gov. Joe Manchin's $4.5 million plan to expand the ranks of public defenders, as a cheaper alternative to private lawyers appointed by the courts to represent the poor in criminal cases.

Missing in Action III

The leaders of the House of Delegates who make up its Rules Committee took the action alluded to earlier and today endorsed a resolution to declare as vacant the seat of no-show Delegate Ron Thompson.

The resolution will be introduced on the House floor tomorrow, with a vote by members as early as Thursday.

As I and others have noted, this is a precedent-setting episode for the West Virginia Legislature. I hope to provide some historical and national context in my ensuing coverage.

The Legislature: Pay Raises

Though Gov. Joe Manchin's teacher pay raise proposal finally reached the Legislature last week, lawmakers continue to ponder alternative bills as well as salary hikes sought by other groups.

These other groups include themselves. The Charleston Daily Mail assesses the impact of a legislative pay raise on the state's main public pension fund.

Teachers groups, meanwhile, are challenging the statistics blitz launched by Team Manchin last week to boost its legislation over the competing bills, as the Register-Herald of Beckley reports.

Corrections officers saw a pay raise bill benefiting them advance in the Senate last week, as The Charleston Gazette relates. Manchin has included money for a $1,000 raise for corrections in his budget, rather than proposing a pay hike bill.

W.Va. Turnpike, agency in spotlight this week

The Legislature (and the public) went Bakersfield Chimp on the West Virginia Turnpike's parent agency last year, after its ill-fated attempt to raise toll rates. Lawmakers repealed their earlier mandate for the so-called Shady Spring interchange, while essentially taking over the authority's bond-issuing powers.

The backlash continues this session, with a proposal to tighten the Legislature's leash on the authority while setting the stage for the Division of Highways to take over the toll road.

In The Associated Press story above (also found here), I note that lawmakers could be hearing more about turnpike operations this week. Gov. Joe Manchin expects a report this week on an in-depth study of the authority from the national consulting firm he's hired to aid his administration.

The authority began this session on poor footing after a legislative audit detailed the financial shortcomings of its Tamarack center.

The Register-Herald of Beckley also has a story.

The Legislature: Roll Out the Barrel

The House and Senate have yet to replace the fabled Budget Digest, which "recommended" millions of dollars worth of spending on hundreds of projects and causes each year. Lawmakers opted to junk this vehicle in 2006 to avoid a lawsuit challenging their spending priorities.

Critics considered it a form of political pork, though supporters argued it lacked the force of law and earmarked but a fraction of the state's general revenue and lottery-funded budgets.

Another sort of pork-barrel politicking could be on the chopping block this session: the grants that public officials pass out, in front of crowds and cameras, around election time. The Associated Press' Tom Breen reports on legislation that would ban that practice.

Missing in Action II: The Showdown

Long-absent Delegate Ron Thompson missed his own deadline for returning to the House on Monday, renewing the pressure on leadership to act.

Unable to find a previous example of such conduct, House officials will create precedent in their handling of Thompson's case and so have treaded carefully. But the House speaker concluded earlier that a continued failure to appear would amount to a refusal to take the oath of office. The state constitution requires a lawmaker to forfeit his seat for such a refusal.

Though Thompson has alleged he is seeking treatment for a medical condition, he also told the speaker last month that he wanted to continue serving in the House and planned to return by Feb. 5.

The press staked out his desk in the Chamber, his legislative office and even the House Clerk's office waiting for him to show up. They included Thompson's hometown Register-Herald of Beckley, The Charleston Gazette, and MetroNews.

Previous posts on the elusive Delegate Thompson are here, here and here.

05 February 2007

The Legislature, Day 27

The 2007 session hits its midpoint on Thursday, and various topics are jockeying for the attention of lawmakers as crunch time approaches:

* As noted below, The Associated Press reports on several health care-related issues: the future of AccessWV and anti-obesity efforts from the Public Employees Insurance Agency.

* The Charleston Gazette's Phil Kabler links the fate of the more robust teacher pay raise proposals to the recent teacher pension merger ruling. The AP offers the latest on options facing lawmakers and state officials in the ruling's wake.

* Kabler also offers some interesting statistics from the state's Problem Gamblers Help Network (2nd item in his column), within the context of the ongoing table games debate.

* MetroNews looks at a bill that would require the governor to fill a judicial vacancy within 90 days, spurred by the lag time in appointing a new circuit judge for Wood County,.

* Public Broadcasting will interview Supreme Court Chief Justice Robin Davis this evening on The Legislature Today. Davis continues to pursue "Year of the Child" initiatives begun last year, while studies commissioned by the state's highest court recommend additional circuit and family court judges.

Quote of the Day

"I can honestly tell you I am not in any way, shape or form pursuing that whatsoever... You never know what will happen, but I can tell you that with the job I have right now, there's so much still we have left to do in West Virginia."

-- Gov. Joe Manchin, responding to questions from Marshall University students about whether he may become a running mate to a 2008 presidential candidate, according to The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington.

04 February 2007

A Mighty Wind

Following up on his "Declaration of Energy Independence," Gov. Joe Manchin has proposed legislation addressing West Virginia's emerging wind power industry.

The Register-Herald of Beckley touches on that proposal while reporting on a Senate bill that would govern how and where the mammoth wind turbines would be located.

Renewable energy is also the topic of a recent article from The Parsons Advocate, offered as an Associated Press Exchange feature. The author, Chris Stadelman, is a veteran business writer who also took a turn at AP before settling in as the gentleman publisher of a country newspaper.

The Sunday Gazette-Mail, meanwhile, reports on how a Houston oil heir now has also become West Virginia's biggest coal owner.

Montani Saepe Aegeri

With Monday marking Rural Health Day at the Legislature, and Wednesday designated Public Health Day, the well-being of West Virginians comes into focus this week.

The Associated Press' Tom Breen ponders the future of AccessWV, the state-managed health insurance fund of last resort for residents otherwise unable to get coverage. A majority of states offer high-risk pools, though West Virginia's _ which does NOT cover enrollees with tax dollars _ is facing a funding crisis.

The AP's April Vitello continues coverage of one of the Mountain State's biggest health care problems: obesity. Vitello reports on programs pursued by the Public Employees Insurance Agency and like Breen, offers a national perspective as well.

Bright Shiny Objects

That's what Statehouse veterans call a peculiar strain of legislation that captivates lawmakers well beyond the scope of its potential impact.

Oftentimes, the bill is not on any agenda but somehow still manages to grab a higher profile than measures that are. Critics may consider them distractions, but they can end up changing the dynamic of a session.

Sometimes, they expose West Virginia to ridicule, regardless of their merits. An example; 1998's "Road Kill Bill," which proposed allowing motorists to keep wildlife felled by vehicles. It is now the law. Don Imus, among others, had a field day.

This session's Bright Shiny Object is the resolution urging Gov. Joe Manchin to change the greeting on state welcome signs from "Open for Business" to "Wild, Wonderful."

As I noted when The Associated Press reported on this last week, "Wild, Wonderful" has not been on highway welcome signs since the administration of Gov. Gaston Caperton (1989-1997).

Caperton had pushed to adopt a new slogan, "A Welcome Change," starting with the state license plate. The public was about as thrilled at that as they seem to be by "Open for Business."

Drawn from his 2004 campaign for governor, Manchin proposed it as a welcome slogan the following year. He then unveiled a revamped highway sign during his 2006 State of the State address.

Manchin's new signs were added to 114 crossings along major highways, according to state officials. These officials note that Caperton's successor, Gov. Cecil Underwood, restored "Wild, Wonderful" at about 80 other, minor border crossings.

All 11 Senate Republicans have co-sponsored the pending resolution. Democrats have proposed polling state residents on the topic. The resolution's supporters cite an online petition begun last year that targets "Open for Business," calling it "ridiculous."

The petition received some press in October, when it attracted 25,000 names within about a month. It has added nearly 4,000 more since then (it does contain duplicates). Both the petition and the resolution sum up the supporters' sentiments.

Team Manchin will likely respond as they have to other recent challenges: by pointing to the results of the November elections and the 83 percent approval rating the governor enjoyed among voters.

Other reports on the slogan slugout can be found here and here.

Gov. Manchin Gets Some Mail

The state's environmental community is claiming a minor victory of sorts this weekend in their ongoing quest to have Raleigh County's Marsh Fork Elementary School relocated away from a coal processing facility.

Activists converged on Gov. Joe Manchin after he spoke at a
South Charleston Chamber of Commerce event, to hand him hundreds of letters from schoolchildren enlisted worldwide to demand action over Marsh Fork. The activists also sported a large banner as they confronted the governor in front of the unsuspecting audience.

One of the groups involved, Coal River Mountain Watch, issued a press release on the Feb. 2 "surprise delivery." (There are also photos from it floating around cyberspace, and I'm looking for the link).

Oddly, the activists had boasted
the previous day of giving Manchin the letters by hand. The Feb. 2 release and other Internet chatter about the stunt alleges the governor had "dodged" the attempted Feb. 1 delivery, perhaps by sending out an aide to the environmentalists.