24 February 2007

The Legislature: major deadlines - UPDATED

Friday marked the last day for delegates to introduce non-appropriating bills; the Senate's deadline was Monday.

Next Wednesday, Feb. 28, meanwhile, is the deadline for bills to escape their house of origin.

Besides racetrack table games and teacher pay raises, other issues on the move include:

* ABORTION (Update): The Senate Judiciary Committee sent the full Senate a pending measure this that aims to tighten the state's parental notification law, after making several changes (here's a link to the penultimate version).

*ATVs (Update): Senate Judiciary also advanced the bill that would ban all-terrain vehicles from paved roads and bar passengers from single-rider models. The committee made a few technical changes, while rejecting an attempt to delete the passenger ban provision.

* DRUG COSTS (Updated): The House Finance Committee amended Gov. Joe Manchin's pharmaceutical advocate bill -- so much so that the administration is more or less disowning the result, as The Associated Press' Tom Breen reports.

The governor proposed the legislation just ahead of today's deadline after signs of its demise emerged earlier this session, Gov. Joe . AP reported earlier on House Finance's initial work on the bill Thursday.

* JUDGES: The Senate Judiciary has pared down the proposed list of additional circuit court judges from seven to four, much to the chagrin of lawmakers from Kanawha and Monongalia counties and the Eastern Panhandle. MetroNews also has the story.

* REHABILITATION CENTER: The future of the West Virginia Rehabilitation Center in Insitute has become a cause of concern for local lawmakers, as The Charleston Gazette finds.

* POP TAX (Update): House Finance has also reverted Manchin's proposed soft drink tax repeal into a study resolution. WVU officials had predicted that fate for Manchin's bill. Several school programs benefit from the tax's revenue, which hit nearly $15 million last year. The industry is hoping lawmakers will reconsider before next week's crossover deadline.

* SCHOOL FUNDING: MetroNews is tracking a Senate measure that would increase the share of property tax revenue that counties could keep for their school systems.

* STEALING SCRAP: Nearly every state has seen thieves brazenly make off with copper and certain other metals in various forms: power lines, telephone wires, plumbing, even mausoleum door hinges. The House of Delegates has sent the Senate a bill that would hold the buyers of hot metal accountable to deter thefts.

* EYEWITNESS IDENTIFICATIONS: It may not prove a major bill, but I examined a measure endorsed by the Senate Judiciary Committee that seeks to create a uniform and fair process for conducting photo and in-person lineups. The bill has been endorsed by The Innocence Project, which counts three West Virginia cases among 146 wrongful convictions blamed at least in part on bad witness IDs.

(I covered all three of the state's cases, back in the day. At least two also involved the late Fred Zain. For better or worse, I've probably written more articles about Zain than anybody else on the planet...)

* WRAP-UP (update): The Legislature's Office of Reference & Information also has posted its weekly summary.

23 February 2007

House Passes Teacher Pay Bill

The House of Delegates voted unanimously today to send the Senate its heftier version of Gov. Joe Manchin's pay proposal for teachers and school service personnel.

The House would give both 3.5 percent raises. The governor had requested a 2.5 percent increase for educators and a bonus-type payment to service workers.

As I noted earlier, Manchin has reconsidered his stance on pay issues this session.

22 February 2007

The Legislature, Day 44

* BROADBAND: A Senate committee had endorsed legislation that aims to increase broadband Internet access in the Mountain State. But Tom Breen cites industry sources in The Associated Press article who say that while 75 percent of residents have access, relatively few subscribe to broadband.

Breen also reports on a recent study that found that 27.5 percent of households in the state get broadband service, compared with 36.5 percent nationally. And while 58 percent of state residences have a computer, 68 percent do nationally.

The House had voted to change the prison sentencing for fatal DUIs, to ensure a longer minimum term. A delegate tells AP that the bill was prompted by the September death of his cousin, a 49-year-old nurse and mother of three broadsided by a driver high on drugs. That bill now goes to the Senate.

* HOSPITAL DAY: The state's acute care hospitals will visit and lobby the Legislature today, amid a fight with doctors over which can offer what procedures in a heavily regulated health care industry.

* MEDICAID: The House has passed a bill to the Senate that would add two legislators to the state Medicaid Advisory Board. The Charleston Gazette quotes the measure's backers, who seek greater oversight in the wake of controversial decisions in the Medicaid program.

* PAY RAISES: Public Broadcasting is the latest to try to pin down Gov. Joe Manchin after he changed his stance earlier this week on proposed increases for teachers and state employees.

After dropping the issue from its agenda Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee may consider the House-passed racetrack table games bill this afternoon.

Manchin's bill to raise cash with bonds backed by tobacco settlement payments has gotten some traction, MetroNews reports, as one of several bills from his agenda to clear the Senate Finance Committee.

Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman John Unger, D-Berkeley, touts the merits of a pending water quality measure to the Register-Herald of Beckley.

Teacher Pensions

An estimated 19,602 West Virginia teachers and Department of Education employees are in a real bind.

About 1,000 of them successfully sued to block the merger of their 401(k)-style individual investment accounts into the traditional-style Teachers Retirement System fund.

But several thousand more favored the merger. Most likely are worried that their individual accounts aren't earning enough for their future retirement benefits.

As I point out in The Associated Press' update on this issue, state officials say none of the individual accounts has more than $200,000, and only 72 have more than $100,000. To match the benefits offered by TRS, an account would need at least $500,000.

The Legislature appears unlikely to act this session. The agency that oversees state pensions, the Consolidated Public Retirement Board, met Wednesday to discuss its options.

The board decided to wait until its April 11 meeting to vote on whether to appeal the court ruling. The appeal deadline is May 25.

Besides weighing the merits of a legal challenge, the board in the meantime will be studying the financial impact of the current situation on both its system and the 401(k)-style enrollees. The board will also aid a similar study by lawmakers, which will yield a report in July.

The Charleston Gazette also has the story, and also examines some of the costs involved.

Table Games Bill Extends Its Streak

The racetrack table games bill (HB2718) cleared its first major Senate hurdle today with the endorsement of the Judiciary Committee there. The Associated Press has the latest.

Before sending the bill to Senate Finance, the committee tinkered with the percentages for distributing the potential revenue from table games proceeds.

Senate Judiciary increased the revenues for county and local governments, by reducing the shares for race prize purses. The committee also increased revenues for track worker pensions.

AP also highlights this latest version's details. Bill foes again failed to weaken, poison or derail the bill, but will have several more chances. The House must approve today's and any other changes made by senators to the bill.

Update: Both The Charleston Gazette and MetroNews (with audio) also covered Thursday's hearing, while Talkline's Hoppy Kercheval focused on the failed bid to involve video poker machines in the discussion.

21 February 2007

The Legislature, Day 43 - UPDATE II

* ABORTION: The Senate Health and Human Resources Committee has amended and advanced this session's bill to tighten the state's parental notification law, as The Charleston Gazette reports.
(Update: Today is Pro-Life Day at the Legislature, and hundreds of anti-abortion advocates have thronged the Capitol Rotunda for a lengthy program of speakers and live music. Gov. Joe Manchin attended last year's event.)

* ATVs (Updated): The Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee advanced a bill banning the machines, but there's a catch as The Associated Press' Tom Breen reports. The committee derailed a companion measure Tuesday.

* INVESTMENTS: The Gazette also tracks separate House and Senate bills that would allow the state to invest in real estate and other assets beyond the stocks and bonds currently permitted.

* SCHOOL BUS RIDES: MetroNews reports on a renewed effort by Gov. Joe Manchin to address the length of school bus routes.

* SMOKING IN CARS (updated): The Senate has passed to the House an amended version of legislation that seeks to bar adults from smoking in vehicles with child passengers. The Register-Herald of Beckley earlier offered details.

* TEACHER PAY: The House Finance Committee has advanced the version of Manchin's salary hike bill amended earlier by the House Education Committee. The Gazette and MetroNews both report on this latest development. The full House could vote on the bill as early as Friday.
(Update: teachers are also worried that county school boards or the state will follow the example of Auditor Glenn Gainer and post their salaries online, the Charleston Daily Mail reports.)

Lawmakers _ or, at least, Senate Finance Chairman Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas _ remain interested in getting a pay raise, as recommended before the session's start. MetroNews has the story.

Quote of the Day

"It is a stain on West Virginia's national image as a place to do business."

-- Lauren C. Steele, vice president of corporate affairs for Coca-Cola Bottling Co. Consolidated, on the state's "double taxation" of soft drinks.

Here Come the Judges

West Virginia would get more circuit court and family court judges under separate proposals that advanced Tuesday in the Legislature. But a top lawmaker (Senate Majority Leader Truman Chafin) is questioning Gov. Joe Manchin's mood for funding additional jurists.

The House Judiciary Committee endorsed a bill that would add 10 family court judges to as many of the state's 26 family court circuits. The bill would also redraw nine of those circuits to help judges with their caseloads.

The provisions are drawn from a recent Supreme Court-commissioned study of the five-year-old family court system.

A Senate Judiciary subcommittee, meanwhile, sent that full committee a measure adding 7 circuit judges statewide. Chafin, D-Mingo, objected to this bill, as amended.

When introduced, the bill had proposed creating 10 circuit judgeships, based on another recent study. The subcommittee whittled that list down to five, but then tacked on two more judges.

The five included one for Chafin's district as well as one for Kanawha (the largest, with 7 judges currently) .

Subcommittee Chairman Mike Oliverio, D-Monongalia, had one added for his circuit. Chafin said that this county made neither the original bill nor the underlying study's recommendations. Oliverio criticized the study as failing to consider population growth.

Sen. John Yoder, R-Jefferson and a subcommittee member, then had a judge added to his circuit. It had been left out of the original bill, partly because it received an additional judge under legislation passed last year.

Critics have already emerged to question why both bills add judges in counties that have been losing population. Besides Mingo and Wayne counties, that list includes Lincoln, Boone and Logan counties for the family court judge bill.

Pop Tax on the Chopping Block

As The Associated Press reported Tuesday, a bill from Gov. Joe Manchin to repeal the state's pop tax happened to coincide with the Soft Drink Association's annual lobbying day at the Legislature.

Industry officials say Manchin agrees with them that soft drinks are being unfairly taxed twice. At the governor's behest, lawmakers set an additional, 6 percent sales tax on soda during last year's special session on taxation.

The pop tax dates back to 1951, when the state needed money to build WVU's medical school. The tax provided $14.9 million to to the school last year. Officials there tell me the money also benefits the pharmacy, nursing and dentistry schools, and accounts for 21 percent of their total state funding.

MetroNews follows up on the governor's proposed pop tax repeal (with audio), which would take about 14 years. Talkline's Hoppy Kercheval also recounts Tuesday's mad scramble by a WVU med school official to stymie the bill.

20 February 2007

The Legislature, Day 42 - UPDATED

*MINE SAFETY: Senators altered parts of Gov. Joe Manchin's legislation (SB68) before advancing it to the House today, as The Associated Press details.

* TABLE GAMES: The Senate Judiciary Committee could take the House-passed bill up on Wednesday. In the meantime, The Charleston Gazette underscores the racetracks' desire to scale back its proposed tax and fee rates.

* PAY RAISES: Gov. Joe Manchin sought to qualify his change of position on pay hikes during a Tuesday morning appearance on MetroNews' Talkline show (with audio). Public Broadcasting, meanwhile, has interviewed House Finance Chairman Harry Keith White on the subject (audio link).

*ATV SAFETY: The Senate Transportation and Infrastructure Committee killed one of several pending all-terrain vehicles measures today. The 5-4 vote derailed a bill that would have required owners to register their vehicles -- and pay a fee and a tax. MetroNews has the story.

Gas Tax In, Pop Tax Out

The Legislature marked the state Soft Drink Association's visit to the Capitol on Tuesday with a bill from Gov. Joe Manchin to repeal the venerable pop tax over 14 years.

As The Associated Press reports, Manchin (and the industry) believe soft drinks are being unfairly taxed twice. Lawmakers set a 6 percent sales tax on soda (at Manchin's request) during last year's special session on taxation.

The pop tax dates back to 1951, when the state needed money to build WVU's medical school. The tax provided $14.9 million to to the school last year (5 percent of overall revenues, but about half the state's share of its funding).

I also note that the House on Tuesday sent the Senate a bill to renew the nickel-a-gallon portion of the gas tax set to expire in August. The bill has been amended to send part of its revenue into a separate fund which only the Legislature can tap.

This new account is earmarked for state roads ineligible for federal funding, but the administration is questioning this change to the bill.

The Legislature, Day 42

* TABLE GAMES: The Senate is expected to decide how to handle the bill when members caucus Wednesday morning. In the meantime, The Charleston Gazette underscores the racetracks' desire to scale back its proposed tax and fee rates.

* DRUG TESTING: Legislation to require random drug testing of high school athletes may not pass this session, but it has prompted a study topic for the monthly interim meetings that lawmakers will hold over the remainder of the year, the Gazette reports.

The Charleston Daily Mail, meanwhile, delves into the nuts and bolts of drug tests, in light of pending proposals promoting drug-free workplaces.

* PAY RAISES: In the wake of Gov. Joe Manchin's change of position on pay hikes, Public Broadcasting plans to interview West Virginia Education Association President Charles DeLauder at 6:30 p.m. on The Legislature Today.

* VOYEURISM: The Senate is scheduled to vote today on a bill prompted by an incident relayed to a Northern Panhandle lawmaker, the Register-Herald of Beckley reports.

Manchin budges on pay proposals

Gov. Joe Manchin told The Associated Press on Monday that he supports granting state employees a permanent raise, and wants that pay hike to match whatever teachers receive during the ongoing legislative session.

The administration also told AP that it's amenable to a more robust raise for teachers than what Manchin proposed in his pending bill.

The governor had requested only a one-time lump-sum payment for rank-and-file workers, equal to 2.5 percent of their wages.

Manchin had also proposed a 2.5 percent salary hike for educators, but the House Education Committee has boosted that to 3.5 percent while converting the bonus into a permanent raise for school service personnel.

The governor addressed the issue after dozens of state employees spent their Presidents' Day holiday at the Capitol lobbying for better pay and other improvements. Both the Register-Herald of Beckley and MetroNews covered the larger of the two competing rallies.

The Charleston Daily Mail, meanwhile, notes that the state continues to phase in about $77 million worth of teacher salary increases passed during a 2005 special legislative session that focused on pay issues (and I observe in the AP story that rank-and-file state workers received a $900 raise during that session).

Speaking of non-binding resolutions...

A group of House Democrats have co-sponsored a concurrent resolution that would have the Legislature register disapproval of the Bush administration's plan to send another 20,000 troops to Iraq.

The measure prefaces this proposed disapprobation by stating that "The Legislature and the citizens of West Virginia will continue to support and protect the members of the United States Armed Forces who are serving or who have served bravely and honorably in Iraq..."

Its language (and weight) mirrors that of the resolution approved by the U.S. House of Representatives after lengthy discussion last week.

As The Associated Press' Tom Breen reports, as many as a dozen other states are considering similar measures. Vermont's Legislature has already passed one, as has the Iowa Senate, Breen found. Lawmakers in Maryland and Maine, meanwhile, have issued letters to make a similar point.

Breen talked to interest groups that spoke in support of the West Virginia resolution during a Capitol press conference. MetroNews covered the Monday event as well, and offers audio.

The AP also talked to House Minority Leader Tim Armstead, R-Kanawha, a member of the Rules Committee that would decide whether to add the resolution to the House's agenda.

"Some may disagree with this, but I think that this kind of resolution is discouraging to our troops," Armstead told AP. "If they decide to run it, they should expect hours and hours of debate on it."

The push for the resolution follows last week's picketing and 10-hour sit-in at the Kanawha City office of U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., by opponents of the Bush administration plan.

Mine Safety Bill Up In Senate

One day after Gov. Joe Manchin toured a Marshall County coal mine and touted some of his safety proposals, the state Senate is scheduled to vote on his legislation on this issue this morning.

The Charleston Gazette offers a preview of the pending bill, after questioning whether the Senate Judiciary Committee diluted one of its provisions. Public Broadcasting also weighs Senate changes to the bill (audio).

MetroNews also sets the stage for today's vote, while the Register-Herald of Beckley focuses on the failed bid to add a tax credit to the pending bill.

In the arena of mining, the Gazette recently scrutinized whether the state has been tracking the mitigation of waterways buried by mountaintop removal mining.

19 February 2007

The Champ

Gov. Joe Manchin earned a mention in a Sunday profile of Bill Richardson, New Mexico governor and 2008 Democratic presidential contender.

The Albuquerque Journal quotes Manchin praising Richardson's leadership as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.

"Bill took us to a whole new level ... brought it all together," Manchin says in the article. "I think the people of West Virginia need to be introduced to Bill Richardson."

The Journal also recounts how Manchin showed his and the DGA's appreciation during a December event in Washington, D.C.

The article said Manchin "hushed the crowd at the holiday reception and gave Richardson a red boxing glove autographed by Muhammad Ali.

"Bill has been our champ," Manchin told the partygoers. "One champ to another."

The Legislature, Day 41

Today marks the deadline for senators to introduce bills (the only exception is for measures that direct state spending, as with supplemental appropriations).

The Associated Press offers an update on the Top 10 bills of the 2007 session.

The AP's Tim Huber updates on West Virginia's efforts, partly through legislation, to improve mine safety.

The AP also reports on the heir apparent to the fabled Budget Digest: "Community Participation Projects." The Charleston Gazette's Phil Kabler gives mention to this as well in today's column ("Frying a Fresh Slab of Pork," has he puts it).

The Gazette also follows up on an often-overlooked provision of Gov. Joe Manchin's teacher pay raise bill that would boost the bonus teachers earn for national certification.

With the Legislature increasing its attention to the upcoming state budget, Public Broadcasting plans to interview the House and Senate finance committee chairmen at 6:30 p.m. on The Legislature Today.

And speaking of the state budget, the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington touts a recent study that credits West Virginia's three medical schools for providing nearly 21,000 jobs and adding $2.5 billion to the economy.

The Bills You Have to Pay

In his State of the State address last month, Gov. Joe Manchin pledged to find for West Virginians a "patient-friendly" medical billing system. The Associated Press' Tom Breen follows up on the governor's promise, which was prompted in part by Manchin's recent knee surgery.

Breen also reports that Manchin has added to this goal a related objective: to make West Virginia the first state "to reward Medicaid recipients who find instances of overcharging or fraud on their medical bills."

18 February 2007

Quote of the Weekend

“Aren’t you Don Perdue?”

-- Deborah Linz of WCHS/WVAH-TV, during her purported attempt to confront the Wayne County delegate about legislation involving gamecocks. According to the Sunday Gazette-Mail, Linz mistook state Treasurer John Perdue for her would-be prey during a Capitol press conference last week.

Weekend Roundup

* BUFFALO CREEK: The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington marks the 35th anniversary of the 1972 disaster that scarred far more than the landscape of a Logan County hollow. Besides photos (here and here) and video (here and here) from the disaster that killed 125 people, the commemoration offers eyewitness and plans for an upcoming memorial.

* LEGISLATIVE PERENNIALS: The Associated Press notes the unofficial rule of thumb that bills rarely pass the first session they're introduced, and there exists a select batch that never seem quite ready for prime time.

* TAMARACK: The (Charleston) Sunday Gazette-Mail weighs the future of West Virginia's arts and crafts showplace in the wake of recent studies and continuing legislative antipathy toward its parent agency, the Parkways, Economic Development and Tourism Authority.

* RECORD VERDICT: The Gazette-Mail also continues the scrutiny of the $405 million verdict that has fueled the ongoing debate over the state's civil justice system. This installment focuses on how about 150 of the 9,000 plaintiffs in the natural gas royalty dispute are land companies and other businesses.

* A THOUSAND CUBIC FEET OF PAPER: The Charleston Daily-Mail (via an AP Exchange) follows up on the state's effort to preserve the official papers of the late veteran U.S. Sen. Jennings Randolph, D-W.Va., which fill 986 boxes in the archives of the state Division of Culture and History.