10 March 2007

Teachers to Walk Over Pay Raise Bill

Members of the West Virginia Education Association plan to stage a one-day walkout next week to protest what the Legislature has left on the table to raise their pay, The Associated Press' Tim Huber reports today.

WVEA county chapter presidents met in Charleston after polling their members about possible protest actions.

Hundreds of American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia members, meanwhile, rallied on the Capitol's north steps against the legislation.

(A statehouse reporter relays this anecdote from the ongoing tumult: when called on to rally at the state capital, at least one teacher in a particular region of the state thought that meant Annapolis...)

The bill passed to Gov. Joe Manchin would increase pay for both teachers and school service personnel by 3.5 percent. Manchin has sought to place this raise within the context of other funding approved in 2005 for both teacher salaries and pensions, as I reported earlier.

The Legislature: Day 60 - UPDATED

By my count, the House and Senate had sent 182 bills to Gov. Joe Manchin as of 6p.m.; 42 passed sometime Saturday. Among the issues afoot:

* LEGISLATIVE PAY RAISE: Leaders in the House of Delegates have gone back and forth over whether to put this hot potato on the schedule of bills eligible for a vote on passage. MetroNews offers different takes here and here on the issue, while The Charleston Gazette and The Register-Herald of Beckley also have reports. Public Broadcasting also has audio on the Senate's abrupt embracing of the bill.

* VENUE BILL: The latest attempt to curb lawsuits involving nonresidents is on its way to Gov. Joe Manchin, as The Associated Press reports.

* EMS PENSIONS: AP also reports on the success of legislation to create a new public pension program, this one for EMS workers. A contingent of these uniformed services workers were on hand earlier in the week to lobby for its passage.

* RETIREMENT COMMUNITY TAX BREAK: A recurring, as yet-unsuccessful feature in recent sessions has been a bill to ease property taxes for retirement facilities. Apparently sought on behalf of a Cabell County facility, The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington and Public Broadcasting (audio link) offer different perspectives on the legislation.

* SCHOOL UNIFORMS: After indicating its demise, The Register-Herald reports on a second chance for this proposal.

* LIQUOR STORE HOURS: Before it's passage Saturday, I reported on this bill for AP. While its main thrust is to regulate wineries and wine shipments, it also extends the Monday-Saturday sale hours for liquor from 10 p.m. to midnight.


* JUDGES: The Legislature has passed bills adding 6 circuit judges and 10 family court judges to the judiciary. Kanawha, Mingo, Mercer, Monongalia, Wayne and the circuit for Hampshire, Hardy and Pendleton counties would each get another circuit judge.

* GREENHOUSE GASES: Several delegates questioned global warming and greenhouses gases before the House sent the governor a Senate measure _ sought by the Department of Environmental Protection since the days of Gov. Bob Wise _ to compile an inventory of relevant emissions.

Table Games, Teacher Pay Still Making Noise

With both of West Virginia's teacher groups holding actions today over the pay raise proposal, and with critics continuing to target the table games bill, these two key issues from the 2007 session continue to grab attention even though they have cleared the Legislature.

Lawmakers completed their work on the 3.5 percent pay hike bill on Friday, as The Associated Press reports. Gov. Joe Manchin said he expects to sign the measure.

The administration has even issued figures touting how it boosts increases already slated for the teacher salary schedule.

But the AP plans to cover today's meeting of West Virginia Education Association county chiefs, and of an afternoon Capitol rally by the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia. Neither group is content with Friday's bill.

AP spoke with teacher advocates in the wake of the bill's passage, as has MetroNews, The Journal of Martinsburg and The Bluefield Daily Telegraph. The Wheeling newspapers, meanwhile, hear from local school officials bracing for possible future protests like this week's sick-out in Monongalia County.

As for table games, the AP also intends to check in with the racetracks, their host counties and other interested parties. The Journal reports that one lawmaker already plans to campaign against the games when and if his county votes on them. The Wheeling News-Register, meanwhile, hears from decidedly more upbeat track officials. Public Broadcasting also offers this audio report on what happens now with the bill.

AP offers highlights of the table games bill, passed Thursday amid word from Manchin that he will sign it.

2007-2008 Budget Taking Shape

It was the House of Delegates' turn this year to take the lead on the 2007-2008 state budget. The bill passed Friday evening to the Senate includes $3.7 billion in general revenue spending and $10 billion in total (also road fund, lottery, federal, etc.) spending for the fiscal year that starts Jan. 1.

The Associated Press offers the details. The story is also here.

Among the highlights:

* $48 million for 3.5 percent teacher and school service personnel raises;

* $4.4 million for $2,000 corrections officers raises, the first step toward raising their pay by $5,000 over three years;

* $21 million for 3.5 percent raises for other state employees.

The budget bill also keeps proposed funding for the Higher Education Grant Program as requested by Gov. Joe Manchin, but shifts part of the source from general to lottery revenue.

Friday's budget bill increases general revenue spending by about 3.5 percent over last year's budget bill, but lawmakers have filed several supplemental appropriations since for ongoing general revenue spending.

Note: the budget won't be passed in its final form by midnight tonight. Instead, a joint House-Senate committee will tinker with it over the course of most of next week, and then the Legislature will pass it as part of an extended session.

09 March 2007

Parental Notification Bill Joining Casualty List?

The (Beckley) Register-Herald is adding to "the losers’ circle in this legislative session" the bill that aims to tighten the state's parental notification laws.

Noting that this would be the third consecutive year that such a measure passed the Senate, only to wallow in the House. The article also quotes the bill's key backer expressing disappointment but adding that her group will "live with it."

Tax Cuts Still Alive

The House is moving forward on half of the four-bill tax cut package that emerged from the Senate just before last week's crossover deadline.

The Associated Press outlines the deal. The key elements: the business franchise tax is cut, not repealed; the corporate net income tax remains the same; and changes are delayed until 2009 to give the Tax Department time to adjust.

I would note that House Finance Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo, had indicated to AP earlier in the week that he had not written off the Senate bills.

Senate adds self to pay raise roster

Folks are sure to howl after the Senate Finance Committee revived a proposed legislative pay raise Thursday, then convinced enough fellow senators to suspend the rules necessary for the bill's immediate passage to the House.

Senate Finance Chairman Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas, has remained steadfast all session in support of the January recommendations of the Citizens Legislative Compensation Commission.

The Associated Press places Thursday's gambit within the context of the other raises being sought this session.

MetroNews hears from senators for and against the eleventh hour bid, while Hoppy Kercheval questions its timing while also providing context in his column today.

Other media pounced on the story, including The Charleston Gazette, The Register-Herald of Beckley and The Journal of Martinsburg.

I also tried to provide a national perspective to how a pay raise would change the Legislature's salary rankings earlier this session.

08 March 2007

Mitt Romney Speaks in W.Va.

Mitt Romney added West Virginia to the 2008 presidential campaign trail this evening, with a speech at the Kanawha County GOP's Lincoln Day Dinner.

In my story for The Associated Press, I note that the former Bay State governor sparked applause for 1) lamenting out-of-wedlock births, 2) praising mom-and-dad families and 3) including coal in his recipe for an energy independent America.

I estimated the crowd at about 300. While there were at least four empty tables, Republican lawmakers invited to the event were stuck at the Capitol for the session. Romney also took questions from reporters after the dinner.

While no direct reflection on the candidate, I could not help but notice that one of his staffers referred to "Charleston, Virginia," during the pre-press conference sound check. Yeah, we don't like that.

I also could not help but notice the campaign photographer snapping away at me when I asked the former governor about his past stance on gun control. I guess the campaigns can get pretty defensive.

Table Games Bill Goes To The Governor

Gov. Joe Manchin tells The Associated Press he'll likely sign the racetrack table games bill after the House and Senate each approved it just before noon.

AP has all the details. The story is also here.

The final House vote: 55-43 with two absences (Ron Thompson, D-Raleigh, and Joe Talbott, D-Webster).

The final Senate vote: 21-13 (Bill Sharpe, D-Lewis, has returned following major surgery).

Debate was brief in each chamber, and featured mostly some last-ditch appeals from bill foes.

Lawmakers sticking with 3.5 percent raises

With the Senate approving a 3.5 percent teacher pay raise, the House has proposed giving everyone else _ well, school service personnel, corrections officers, social workers and other state employees, anyway _ the same increase.

The House Finance Committee has included an across-the-board 3.5 percent raise in its version of the 2007-2008 state budget, as The Associated Press reports.

I also offer other details from the proposed budget in the article, while noting that several pending bills could alter some of the spending.

The Senate-passed business tax cut bills are among those influencing measures, according to Finance Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo. They're not dead yet, he told me.

Gov. Joe Manchin, meanwhile, stressed to the AP on Wednesday that he's keeping an open mind about the pay proposals. Though they depart from what he's requested (2.5 percent for teachers, $1,000 for corrections officers, for instance), Manchin said he wants the Legislature to do its thing.

The Legislature: Casualty Update

With 89 bills sent to the governor so far, and the session ending midnight Saturday, lawmakers continue to cut measures from the list of legislation that could still see passage. Besides that of the prescription drug bill, several other deaths have been reported:

* LANDFILL: Supporters of a bid to allow a new, $24 million landfill accept twice the tonnage now allowed in McDowell County appear unable to sway enough members of the House Judiciary Committee, MetroNews reports (with audio of Chairwoman Carrie Webster, D-Kanawha, and supporting Delegate Cliff Moore, D-McDowell).

* SCHOOL UNIFORMS: The House has expressed no interested in a bill to encourage uniforms in school, a concept first launched by Senate Majority Leader (and parent) Truman Chafin, D-Mingo. The Register-Herald of Beckley has the story.

I'm sure to have more items to add to the list as the day continues.

Quote of the Day

"I'm extraordinarily disappointed that all of the work that has been done over the last six weeks apparently has crashed against the rock that is the American drug industry."

-- House Health and Human Resources Chairman Don Perdue, D-Wayne and a pharmacist, on the apparent demise of the prescription drug bill.

Senate Panel Sinks Pharm Bill

The Associated Press reports on Wednesday's action by the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee dooming legislation that aimed to revamp drug price negotiation efforts.

The Senate committee rejected the House-passed measure, a heavily-amended version of Gov. Joe Manchin's original bill, and ignored a proposed compromise version drafted with the help of administration officials.

As the AP's Tom Breen writes, "The bill was backed by a coalition of labor unions, church organizations and senior citizens groups. Opponents of the measure included not only the pharmaceutical industry, but other groups worried the measure would backfire. Representatives of the drug manufacturers said that companies might have passed on the costs of complying with the new requirements to consumers."

With the session continuing until midnight Saturday, bill supporters are also adopting a never-say-die attitude.

The (Beckley) Register-Herald also covered the bill's (apparent) demise, as did The Charleston Gazette.

07 March 2007

Table Games: On The Verge...Sorta

The path of the racetrack table games bill took several twists and turns Wednesday.

The Associated Press has the (latest) latest.

The measure required a joint House-Senate committee to meet over a sticking point: delegates objected to language added by the Senate, arguing it could inadvertently remove a $5 betting cap on video lottery machines.

After Senate leaders seemed assured that they would relent on the language, they instead refused. But the conference committee members say the Senate will reconsider that refusal tomorrow.

So, will the bill be on its way to Gov. Joe Manchin by lunchtime Thursday? After today's to-and-fro, who can say...

I hope to link to the AP's glance of the bill's highlights.

House bolsters pay raises in budget

Teachers, corrections officers, school workers and other state employees would together see about $40 million more in raises in the 2007-2008 state budget as amended by the House Finance Committee. The Associated Press offers the details.

That amount, which includes $21 million for rank-and-file state workers, is in addition to the $29.4 million worth of raises that Gov. Joe Manchin had proposed when he presented his budget Jan. 10.

But House Finance has also actually reduced general revenue spending by $108 million in the budget bill. Among other areas, the committee has cut funding earmarked for a state reserve account, the Teachers Retirement System and higher ed grants.

The Legislature: All Downhill From Here

Though the 60-day session ends midnight Saturday, the House and Senate must each receive pending bills from its committees by this evening or face suspending its rules to ensure a vote on passage.

Within a universe of 378 bills (158 House, 220 Senate) that survived last week's crossover deadline, 65 have gone to the governor so far. Among the issues passed or pending (not including racetrack table games or teacher pay raises):

* GAS TAX: The Associated Press has a story on the Senate Finance Committee voting to renew a nickel-a-gallon portion of the state gas tax _ after tinkering with the House version of the bill.

* ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT WORKERS: Both AP and The Charleston Gazette report on legislation sent Manchin targeting employers.

* LANDFILL: The Gazette checks on another stalled bill, a measure addressing a $24 million "mega-landfill" for McDowell County that attracted a small crowd of both pro- and con- to a Monday public hearing.

* METHADONE CLINICS: The Register-Herald of Beckley hears from a key supporter on pending legislation addressing regulations for these facilities.

* PRESCRIPTION DRUGS: With the House and Gov. Joe Manchin at odds over the governor's proposal for the pharmaceutical advocate's office, MetroNews reports on the stalled status of the bill in the Senate. A coalition of labor, education and religious groups, meanwhile, share their support of the House version with The Register-Herald.

* TURNPIKE TOLLS: The House Finance Committee has scaled back Senate-sought oversight of the turnpike parent agency's powers to sell financing bonds and hike tolls, as both MetroNews and The Register-Herald report.

* TRUMP RETURNS: Public Broadcasting has lined up longtime former House Minority Leader Charles Trump, R-Morgan, to co-host its live coverage of the session's final hours Saturday.

Teachers walk, but fail to sway lawmakers

The Senate is sticking with the 3.5 percent pay raise for educators that emerged earlier from the House, despite Tuesday's sick-out in Monongalia County by teachers looking for more, as The Associated Press reports.

Besides talking with Senate Education Chairman Bob Plymale, D-Wayne, I checked in with Senate Finance Chairman Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas. Helmick believes his committee will follow suit, based on the talk he's hearing so far.

Others with the story include MetroNews, which offers audio from an interview with WVEA President Chuck DeLauder on the topic.

06 March 2007

Senate Passes Table Games - Update II

Senators voted 20-13 this afternoon (1 absence) to pass an amended version of the House-approved racetrack table games bill.

The bill returned the House, but delegates did not take up the amended bill during its evening session. A conference committee to resolve the dueling versions seems likely.

As I reported in The Associated Press story, the vote strayed from party lines. Four of the 11 Senate Republicans voted for the bill, while six of the majority Democrats opposed it.

MetroNews also has the story, with audio from the floor debate. The Wheeling newspapers were also on hand for the Senate vote, and have posted a report.

I also note that the latter category includes Senate leaders: Education Chairman Robert Plymale of Wayne County, Health and Human Resources Chairman Roman Prezioso of Marion County, and Finance Chairman Walt Helmick of Pocahontas County, whose committee earlier endorsed the bill.

The vote followed Monday's final debate over Senate amendments. As AP and others reported earlier, the successful amendments removed the extra percentage point to the 35 percent tax rate and restructured some of the potential revenue distributions to benefit Jefferson County (Sen. Andy McKenzie, R-Ohio, also pointed out to me yesterday that Hancock County stands to gain as well, though his county does not).

The Journal of Martinsburg focused on whether these changes will improve the bill's chances with its local lawmakers (and with voters, if it passes).

Much of Monday's talk on the Senate floor addressed the mechanics of the bill and the finances of a table games arm for the state lottery system. Foes have sought to turn the debate away from the percentages and the potential spoils. They decry the social costs of gambling, fear West Virginia is being played by the tracks' owners and urge the state to reverse its reliance on such revenues.

West Virginia's Other Gambling Issue

The racetrack table games bill has caused the Legislature to revisit its 2001 decision to outlaw video poker "gray" machines and replace them with identical devices controlled by the state lottery.

As The Charleston Gazette reports from Monday's Senate floor action, several of the proposed amendments addressed the "limited video lottery" machines and the 1,701 bars and other locations statewide that host them.

The Gazette's Phil Kabler also offered context for this facet of the gambling issue in his weekend column. In highlighting the lawsuit challenging limited video lottery's advertising restrictions,

Kabler invokes the "bad old days" when the gray machines were everywhere __ virtually every bar in the state as well as gas stations, grocery stores, corner markets and even laundromats. And they all paid out illegally, while providing untold millions of dollars annually to the state's criminal underworld.

Concluding that the lawsuit lacks merit, Kabler refers to the plaintiffs as "the unsavory crew of the West Virginia Association of Club Owners and Fraternal Services." Ouch.

MetroNews' Hoppy Kercheval also raised questions about the lawsuit, the group filing it and possible unintended consequences in his Monday column.

05 March 2007

The Legislature's Lazarus: Ron Thompson sworn in

Long-absent, out-then-in Delegate Ron Thompson, D-Raleigh, stopped in at the Capitol this afternoon to take his oath of office. The Associated Press has a story.

Thompson did not attend either of the day's floor sessions, but The Charleston Gazette managed to grab a quick interview before Thompson left the building.

Quote of the Day

"It's a matter of, you eat what you kill."

-- Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, explaining the successful amendment he sponsored Monday to the racetrack table games bill.

Table Games - UPDATED

The state Senate has rolled back the proposed tax for racetrack table games to 35 percent, The Associated Press reports.

The change, made today on a tight 17-16 vote (1 absence), removes the amendment added to the bill last week by the Senate Finance Committee at the behest of Sen. Vic Sprouse, R-Kanawha.

Senators also voted today, 28-5, to sweeten the deal for the Eastern Panhandle. This amendment distributes some of the revenue from table games _ the 1 percent due each host county _ in proportion to what each track generates.

As Charles Town Races & Slots does more (gambling) business than the other three tracks, Jefferson County stands to gain the lion's share of that portion of track proceeds.

Several other amendments proposed Monday were rejected or ruled not relevant for consideration. They included another attempt to require a statewide vote.

It was defeated 11-22.

The vote on passage by the Senate remains scheduled for Tuesday,

MetroNews also has the story, after earlier setting the stage for today's action. Both links feature audio.

As I noted last week, gambling foes hoped to energize their base on Sunday. They want churchgoers statewide to deluge pro-bill lawmakers with appeals to oppose it.

The Legislature: Home Stretch

The 60-day regular session of the Legislature enters its final week Monday with about 344 bills still in play and 34 sent to Gov. Joe Manchin so far (including four Senate measures passed by the House during a Sunday evening floor session).

The Associated Press starts off the week with a look at some of the pending issues, and notable casualties. Among some of the topics:

* EMPLOYEE GRIEVANCE: The (Beckley) Register-Herald reports on the proposed overhaul of the system for handling public employee grievances, passed by the Senate to the House.

* LOBBYIST TAX BREAK? The Senate has offered to exempt lobbyists from the 6 percent sales tax, which is assessed on a variety of service providers as well as goods. Public Broadcasting scrutinizes the situation, and also offers audio.

* PRESCRIPTION DRUGS: After the House hijacked Gov. Joe Manchin's pharmaceutical advocate bill, MetroNews checks in with the Senate to assess the bill's future (with audio).

* REGULATING STREAMS: The Register-Herald is the latest to review highly contested pending legislation that would classify state waterways for environmental protections.

* STATE INVESTMENTS: Several House committees met Sunday, with House Finance advancing a long-sought measure to allow the state to expand its investment portfolio. The Charleston Gazette has the story.

*TOBACCO BOND: The above article adds that House Finance endorsed Manchin's proposal to secure some up-front cash through bonds backed by payments from the state's tobacco lawsuit settlement.

The Legislature: Teacher Pay

Gov. Joe Manchin is renewing his push for a 2.5 percent raise, even in the face of teacher discontent over the 3.5 percent proposal passed by the House and pending in the Senate.

Manchin has released numbers to The Associated Press that he's sharing with lawmakers and teachers that pairs his 2.5 percent proposal with funding previously approved (in 2005) for teacher salary schedules.

Manchin has also resumed his warnings about a 3.5 percent harming the state budget, but House Finance Chairman Harry Keith White tells AP that his committee found the extra $22 million to pay for them.

When Manchin relented earlier this session on a one-time bonus to school workers and state employees (the former are included in the teacher bill), he also expressed a willingness to consider pay hikes in excess of his original proposal.