17 March 2007

Protesters Invade Governor's Office - UPDATED

At least 50 protesters marched into Gov. Joe Manchin's Capitol reception room at around 11 a.m. today, and refused to leave until he signed a pledge to relocate Raleigh County's Marsh Fork Elementary School.

The Associated Press' Tom Breen was on the scene - as were more than a dozen state troopers, Capitol and Charleston police, and at least one idling prisoner transport wagon.

As Breen reports first-hand, the incident did not end well for some of the protesters; 13 were arrested.

UPDATE: Public Broadcasting offers video of when things went downhill, via YouTube.

The demonstration was the latest in a series of protests over the proposed construction of a second storage silo at a coal preparation plan next door to the school. Some of the activists offer a web site to present their position.

16 March 2007

U.S. Chamber wants venue bill vetoed

Though it took part in the negotiations that helped craft it, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce remains sufficiently dissatisfied with legislation targeting nonresident lawsuits to seek its veto by Gov. Joe Manchin, The Associated Press reports.

But the stance puts the national business group at odds with the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce, which also helped shaped the bill and supported its passage.

Also contrasting the U.S. Chamber's position are the unanimous votes that House Bill 2956 received in both the House of Delegates and the Senate during the regular session.

The bill aims to replace a 2003 law that was ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court last year.

The legislation marks the latest row between the U.S. Chamber and the Mountain State over its court system. The chamber has repeatedly attacked aspects of its civil justice system with print, broadcast and billboard ads. The chamber has ratcheted up this campaign in recent years by bankrolling a newspaper and a web site that scrutinize the state's courts (and its attorney general).

Update: Public Broadcasting also has the story, and adds that Manchin is considering a veto.

15 March 2007

Delivering on the Promise of Pay Raises

Legislators are finding out the hard way that providing pay raises to most of the sprawling state government requires more than just sticking a large chunk of money in a line of the annual budget bill.

The latest wrinkles involve higher education employees and the State Police.

As The Associated Press reports, the state's public colleges and universities cannot be required to parcel out any extra funding they receive to raise pay. Lawmakers further believe that those institutions are not bound by the $600 to $1,200 range proposed for the pay raises.

As for troopers, the way their pay is structured by state law requires legislation to change. Gov. Joe Manchin would have to include the necessary bill in the special session he plans to convene to extend the raises to them.

Lawmakers say Manchin has also suggested that they reconsider their decision to cap the raises at $1,200 while also providing a minimum raise of $600. The range is meant to ensure there's enough money to go around, and recognizes that perhaps 640 state salaries are in the six figures. But it also means that a number of state employees will be letting less than 3.5%.

As AP points out, the range does not apply to corrections and juvenile services officers who are in line for a different sort of raise: $2,000 increases as part of a three-year plan for raises totaling $5,000.

It also does not apply to school service personnel and teachers, the latter having staged walkouts Wednesday that canceled classes in 14 counties, as the AP reports.

14 March 2007

Looking for Mr. B (Updated)

A certain delegate from Raleigh County was not the only conspicuous absentee during the 2007 regular session.

After pouring millions from his own fortune on an ill-fated bid to reshape the Legislature, by all appearances Don Blankenship sat out the ensuing session.

And unlike 2006, the Massey Energy Co. CEO, chairman and president also did not attend the State of the State address that helps kick off the 60-day session.

Another no-show was Blankenship's longtime lobbyist and political operative, Gregory Alan Thomas. As of March 6, the former GOP congressional spokesman and campaign consultant had not registered with the Ethics Commission to lobby for Blankenship, Massey or anyone.

The same goes for Robert Charles Cornelius, who had previously monitored legislative meetings and helped Thomas run last year's "And For The Sake Of The Kids" political campaign.

The only real exceptions are participants in Blankenship's failed political campaign who returned to minor jobs at the Statehouse (Amy Brooke Danford in the House, for instance, and Roman Stauffer in the Senate) during the session.

(Update: Danford replies, "I did not work for the legislature during the the 2007 legislative session nor was I involved in the for the sake of the kids campaign... I participated in the picture, but I was never affiliated with that organization." She also requested the removal of the link to her personal web site, cited in a comment below.)

Blankenship also has an employee in the Legislature. Delegate Troy Andes, a Putnam County Republican who works for Massey Coal Services, was elected to a two-year term in November representing the 14th House district.

Blankenship has remained busy on other fronts. He welcomed Tuesday's ruling by a state appeal board in the fight between Massey and state regulators over permitting a coal silo at a Raleigh County site that has drawn protesters nationwide.

Blankenship also recently opined that non-union mines are more profitable than their union counterparts (earning an op-ed reply from UMWA President Cecil Roberts).

Besides the disastrous 2006 political campaign (the Republicans actually lost seats in both chambers, despite his massive spending), Blankenship's year also ended on a sour note when BusinessWeek ranked him among the worst CEOs for compensation vs. shareholder returns.

W.Va. Dems Switch to Open Primaries

West Virginia's independent and unaffiliated voters can now vote in Democratic Party primaries, which were previously closed to all but party members, The Associated Press reports.

The fastest growing segment of West Virginia's registered voters, independents have been allowed to vote in the Republican Party's primaries for several years, the AP notes.

Democrats have steadily lost their 2-1 statewide edge over the GOP within the last 10 years. They now outnumber Republicans by just under two-to-one.

Looking toward the 2008 presidential scramble, both of the major parties are looking to revamp the way they select delegates for their national conventions. The GOP proposed changes last year, while the Democrats drafted their plan earlier this year.

First Lady now on W.Va. Board of Ed

Another Manchin has entered the ranks of the executive branch after Gov. Joe Manchin appointed his wife, First Lady Gayle Manchin, to the state school board.

The Associated Press has a story, as does MetroNews.

MetroNews notes that the First Lady has said she will not accept a paycheck for that post.

AP observes that in addition to the First Couple, son Joseph Manchin IV was appointed to the West Virginia Tourism Commission in August 2005, while cousin Mark Anthony Manchin was tapped to be executive director of the West Virginia School Building Authority in November.

The Senate confirmed the SBA appointment during the regular session. The governor picked his wife to the school board three days after the end of the session.

I believe there also may be another cousin serving somewhere within the governor's office.

UPDATE: There's also cousin and Delegate Tim Manchin, D-Marion, who was appointed by the governor's predecessor upon the 2003 death of A. James Manchin, the former (impeached) state treasurer and the governor's uncle.

Tuesday's appointment follows the governor's strong showing in a recent power rankings analysis that included appointment ability among its factors.

13 March 2007

Manchin cools interest in reacting to Roane verdict

Just last week, Gov. Joe Manchin expressed interest in convening a special legislative session to address the legal issues that arose in the $404 million Roane County gas royalties verdict.

No more. He told The Associated Press on Monday that the courts are better suited to handle the situation.

What changed? Well, among other factors, the death of Manchin's coalbed methane tax credit legislation at the hands of a lobbying coalition that included natural gas interests.

The Charleston Gazette has a story strikingly similar to the AP's report.

Behold, The Power of Joe

Already enjoying some of the highest approval ratings nationwide, Gov. Joe Manchin is also one of the most powerful state chief executives in the U.S., according to a new analysis.

The nonpartisan Stateline.org offers highlights of the study, by University of North Carolina political science professor Thad L. Beyle.

Manchin is fifth nationwide in Beyle's latest power rankings, which weigh tenure, budget authority, appointment and veto powers. The rankings also score governors on whether their parties also control the Legislature (as Manchin's does in W.Va.).

Manchin earns his highest marks for the control the state constitution gives him over the budget, when compared to the budgetary powers of other governors.

Manchin's counterparts in Massachusetts, Alaska, Maryland and New Jersey precede him in the list.

Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas (R) with just a two-year term in office, a Democratic-controlled Legislature and no line-item veto ranks last in terms of institutional power, according to Beyle’s rankings," the article said.

The article also says: "
In another survey, Beyle looks at both the personal as well as institutional powers of governors, although those findings are incomplete since the job performances for governors elected in 2006 are not yet available. The top five in that list are: Colorado, Nebraska, Arkansas, Connecticut and New York."

W.Va. Braces for Teacher Walkout

Reports are trickling in from all over West Virginia as members of the state's two major teacher groups decide whether to stay home Wednesday (WVEA) or strike later this year (AFT-WV).

The Associated Press reports on Gov. Joe Manchin's latest efforts to dissuade teachers from protesting. AP also finds that while WVEA officials remain steadfast in seeking a one-day walkout, AFT-WV officials report that Manchin has made some headway with its members.

As for elsewhere in the state:

* Berkeley County teachers don't expect to walk, at least not this week, The Journal of Martinsburg reports.

* Cabell County officials and teachers send mixed signals to The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington.

* Fayette County is walking out, teachers there tell The Register-Herald of Beckley.

* Kanawha County isn't, teachers there tell The Charleston Daily Mail.

* Marion County isn't, either, according to The Times West Virginian of Fairmont.

* Mercer and McDowell counties are bracing for possible school closings, The Bluefield Daily Telegraph observes.

* Tyler County will join the walkout, The Wheeling Intelligencer reports.

* Wood County will not, according to The Parkersburg News.

The Charleston Gazette checks in with school officials in Kanawha, Putnam and various other counties for how they plan to handle any protest actions.

Public Broadcasting offers an audio overview here.

12 March 2007

Table Games: What Comes Next - Updated

As promised, The Associated Press offers the latest as Gov. Joe Manchin reviews the table games bill and the four racetrack prepare for the prospect of requesting local elections to gain permission to offer these games.

In the meantime, the West Virginia Family Foundation pledged Saturday to sue to challenge the legislation's constitutionality. MetroNews has a story with audio from their Capitol press conference, while The Register-Herald of Beckley also has a story.

The West Virginia Values Coalition is calling on its members to press Manchin to veto the bill.

The Wheeling Intelligencer, meanwhile, continues the coverage of a semi-related development: the falsification by at least one breeder of the health certificates for greyhounds that race at West Virginia tracks.

The Charleston Gazette has scrutinized the records of one breeder, who invoked his Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination during a state Racing Commission hearing on the topic.

The AP picked up the story as well last week. The Wheeling newspaper reports today that the commission is now widening its investigation.

The Legislature: More Casualties

Those stout few on hand to cover the legislative session's final days have been sifting through the remnants of Saturday's finale to find favored measures that nonetheless failed to make the cut:

* CASTLE DOCTRINE: An NRA-backed measure to give homeowners the right to defend themselves with deadly forced began the session with solid momentum, but died stranded in the House as The (Beckley) Register-Herald reports.

* MARSHALL CTC: Marshall's Community and Technical College was in line for $10.5 million for a new home, but The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington tracks the bill's demise.

* LOCAL ROAD BONDS: Eastern Panhandle counties were among those advocating for funds for local highway projects, but The Journal of Martinsburg reports that the necessary legislation fell short.

* LEGISLATIVE PAY RAISE: Some folks seemed sure that lawmakers would give themselves a raise, to the chagrin of voters, but the Senate-passed bill never reached the House floor. MetroNews has the story, as does the Register-Herald.

11 March 2007

The Legislature: Session Ends

The Associated Press offers this roundup of the final hours.

AP also has this glance of the higher profile bills of the session.

By my count, the House and Senate sent 273 bills to Gov. Joe Manchin by session's end; 133 passed on Saturday.