03 August 2007

Giuliani in W.Va.- Updated

(GOP presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani visits The Cold Spot in Charleston during Friday's visit to West Virginia... Aw, just kidding, it's actually the most recent photo available on the former New York mayor's campaign web site, from a New Hampshire appearance.)

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a front-runner among the 2008 GOP presidential candidates, courted West Virginians and coal industry officials with a breakfast fundraiser at The Greenbrier today.

The morning appearance coincided with the state Coal Association's annual gathering at the storied resort. Host Hoppy Kercheval interviewed Giuliani about his views on coal and Iraq on MetroNews' Talkline (with audio).

Update: West Virginia Media has video of Giuliani's remarks after the fundraiser.

House Erases Mollohan Earmark - UPDATED

U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, lost his bid to provide $1.5 million to his district's Canaan Valley Institute when the provision was removed Thursday from a pending appropriations bill.

"Since being established in 1995, the organization has received more than $30 million in federal money earmarked by Mollohan. That represents the lion's share of its budget," The Associated Press reports.

But "earlier this year, the institute turned over more than 15,000 documents in response to FBI subpoenas for financial records," the AP report continues, as Mollohan is reportedly "under Justice Department investigation into whether he has benefited from steering money to such groups."

The money was in earmarks for three separate projects. House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., recommended their removal from the bill through a procedural vote, the AP article said, though it had previously passed his committee.

"We had determined that because they were in controversy, for the good of the House, they should not be considered at this time," Obey said.

(Update: Mollohan tells the Charleston Daily Mail "he personally requested the removal" of the earmarks, and his office says "reports that the funding was pulled by other lawmakers are incorrect."

The Hill also reports that Appropriations "Committee Democrats acted in 'accordance of (Mollohan's) wishes and others’ wishes,'" quoting a staffer for the House Rules Committee, which yanked the provision in a procedural move.

The beltway newspaper further observes that "Instead of forcing Mollohan to offer and debate the amendment on the floor, the Rules Committee simply struck the earmarks from the bill.Republicans immediately questioned the move. Jo Maney, spokeswoman for panel Republicans, said it was a 'completely unprecedented' use of the committee to avoid an embarrassing public capitulation.")

The apparent investigation into Mollohan's earmarks and related matters was a topic on the House floor earlier this week.

They Voted For You: Iraq Deployments - Update

U.S. Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, voted late Thursday "to give U.S. troops guaranteed time at home between deployments to Iraq," The Associated Press reports.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, voted against the "Ensuring Military Readiness Through Stability and Predictability Deployment Policy Act."

"The House measure would require that regular military units returning from the war receive at least as much time at home as they spent in Iraq," the AP article said. "Reserve units would get a home stay three times as long as they spent in the war zone."

It prevailed 229-194.

"Bush threatened to veto the measure," AP reports. "Six Republicans broke ranks to support it and three more voted 'present' rather than take a firm position."

Update: The AP article also notes that "Republicans said -- and Democrats did not deny -- that the measure would complicate the Pentagon's efforts to maintain current troop levels."

"Rep. Howard (Buck) McKeon, R-Calif., said the legislation was ''a backhanded attempt to force a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.'' He noted the requirement for time at home did not apply to troops deployed to the war in Afghanistan. "If this were a sincere effort," he said, "it would apply to all deployments,"" the AP reported.

They Voted For You: Health Care

The Senate has taken the different route than the House regarding the funding of the State Children's Health Insurance Program, The Associated Press reports.

Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., voted to pass this reauthorization bill. It prevailed 68-31.

The vote "also gave Democrats, who secured a veto-proof margin, a chance to draw a stark distinction between their priorities and Bush's on an issue that resonates with voters," the AP reports. "The Senate measure now must be reconciled with the House-passed $50 billion expansion, which was paid for partly by cutting government payments to Medicare health maintenance organizations."

Troubled Bridges

Bridges are under scrutiny nationwide in the wake of the tragic collapse of the interstate span in Minneapolis. MetroNews, The Charleston Gazette and the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington are among those who assess the condition of Mountain State bridges.

"More than one in 10 West Virginia bridges are “structurally deficient,” according to federal bridge data — the same classification as a Minneapolis bridge that collapsed and killed at least four people Wednesday," the Gazette article said.

"West Virginia Transportation Secretary Paul Mattox says 37 percent of the state's approximately 6,500 bridges are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete," MetroNews reports.

And the Herald-Dispatch notes that "A 2005 report by the American Society for Civil Engineers showed 27 percent of the nation's 590,750 bridges were structurally deficient or functionally obsolete, including 37 percent of West Virginia's 6,956 bridges."

MetroNews, Public Broadcasting (with audio) and West Virginia Media also revisit the infamous 1967 collapse of the Silver Bridge in Mason County, which killed 46.

They Voted For You: Ethics

U.S. Senators Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.VA., helped the Senate concur with recent House changes to the pending ethics bill.

The Senate vote was 83-14.

The Associated Press offers highlights of the legislation.

Romney On Board For W.Va. GOP Convention

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney plans to participate in the West Virginia Republican Party Convention for the 2008 presidential election, his campaign announced Thursday.

The Associated Press has the story.

Though Romney is the first declared candidate to commit to the "Super-Duper Tuesday," Feb. 5 event, the state GOP expects the rest of the field to follow suit.

02 August 2007

Table Games - Daily Roundup

Early voting in Kanawha County has hit 4,700 as residents decide whether to allow casino table games at the racetrack in Nitro, the Charleston Gazette reports.

And as foes and supporters rally to get their forces to the polls, MetroNews' Talkline hosted an on-air debate Tuesday between the two sides.

At least one of the two counties that has already authorized table games, meanwhile, has apparently based part of its annual budget on the resulting revenue. But as The Associated Press reports, the state Lottery says Hancock and Ohio counties will likely have to wait until November before the games can begin.

They Voted For You: Health Care

U.S. Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, all voted to pass the "Children’s Health and Medicare Protection Act of 2007" Wednesday.

As The Associated Press observes, the legislation is one of two measures that would expand the State Children's Health Insurance Program, which has become a significant source of coverage in most states, including West Virginia.

One measure, up for a Senate vote today, would expand the program by $35 billion, the AP article said.

What passed Wednesday, the AP explains, "the more ambitious House legislation, a $50 billion SCHIP expansion paid for in part by slashing government payments to Medicare HMOs, attracted only five Republican votes, while 10 Democrats crossed party lines to oppose it."

The vote on passage was 225-204.

AP also reports that "Both measures face a veto-threat from President Bush, who says they would cost too much and expand the decade-old program beyond its original mission, inappropriately moving toward government-run health care."

Both versions of the bill would be financed in part by a hefty increase in taxes on tobacco products," the article notes further.

Offering a local perspective, The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington interviewed West Virginia doctors to get their take on the pros and cons of CHIP.

01 August 2007

Quote of the Day

"When I'm back home at the grocery store, I no longer get an occasional person coming up saying we shouldn't be over there and need to get out. More people are saying, 'How are we going to get out? When? What's the end?'"

-- U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, to the Charleston Daily Mail regarding her recent visit with President Bush.

Capito, Bush & Iraq

U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, told both the Charleston Daily Mail and MetroNews (with audio) that she has shared with President Bush that "she and her constituents are growing increasingly frustrated over the direction of the Iraq war."

Capito "led a delegation of 16 female Republican House members to the White House on Tuesday for an hour-long discussion with the president and first lady Laura Bush on Iraq," the Daily Mail reported.

They Voted For You: Pay Discrimination

U.S. Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, voted for legislation "to reverse the Supreme Court's decision limiting the time that workers have to sue their employers for pay discrimination," The Associated Press reports.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, voted against the "Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act," which prevailed 225-199.

"The Bush administration has threatened to veto the legislation, pushed almost entirely by Democrats," the AP article said.

(The article also notes that "Ledbetter, a supervisor at Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.'s plant in Gadsden, Ala., sued right before she retired. She ended a 19-year career making $6,500 less than the lowest-paid male supervisor, and claimed earlier decisions by her supervisors kept her from making more. The court said she had waited too long to sue.")

Table Games - Kanawha County

With table games already approved for racetracks in Hancock and Ohio counties, West Virginia is poised the join Iowa as the only other state to offer live racing, slot machines and casino table games at a single location.

And with Kanawha County slated to vote Aug. 11 whether to allow the games at its track, The Charleston Gazette checked out the situation in The Tall Corn State.

With well-paying jobs a selling point from table games advocates, an official at Dubuque Greyhound Park & Casino tells the Gazette that most dealers there make $34,000 to $35,000 a year.

"(D)ealers just starting out at the gaming tables have a base salary of $5.50 an hour," the article said. "Tips bring the pay of a new card dealer to about $11 an hour." Dealers then get raises at three, six and 12 months, the Gazette reports.

West Virginia Media, meanwhile, reports that more than 4,000 Kanawha County have already cast early ballots over table games. With early voting running until Aug. 8, the county has already seen "the largest early voting turn-out ever for a single issue election," the report said.

Judge: No Pension for Ex-Lincoln Assessor

A circuit judge has blocked former Lincoln County Assessor Jerry Weaver from receiving retirement benefits, The Associated Press reports.

Weaver was one of several county Democrats who pleaded guilty to roles in a vote-buying conspiracy unearthed by federal prosecutors in 2004.

Kanawha Circuit Judge Jim Stucky concluded that Weaver's admitted crimes reflect the sort of "less than honorable service" that triggers the loss of a public pension under state law.

The federal indictment had alleged that the conspirators sought to control the outcome of elections so they could monkey with property tax assessments, among other reasons.

But Weaver had argued that the federal judge in his case had specifically concluded that he did not misuse his office in the course of providing cash to bribe voters.

"Stucky said Weaver will be reimbursed for the contributions he made to the Public Employees Retirement System for 27 years plus interest, but minus payments already received," the AP story said.

MetroNews (which appears to be the first to report on Stucky's July 23 ruling) also has a story, as does The Charleston Gazette.

31 July 2007

They Voted For You: Ethics

West Virginia's House members _ Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd and Nick Rahall, D-3rd _ all voted for legislation today that would "require lawmakers to disclose more details of their bids to fund pet projects and their fundraising help from lobbyists," The Associated Press reports.

The final tally was 411-8 on passage of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007.

Table Games - Kanawha County

As both sides try to sway voters on the table games issue, the Charleston Daily Mail examines the question of increased crime linked to gambling.

"Metro 911 statistics indicate police are four times more likely to be called to the neighboring Wal-Mart than the Nitro track itself," the newspaper reports. "Since July 1, 2006, emergency responders have been dispatched to the track 89 times. Most of the calls involved accidents, vandalism and other minor disturbances. In comparison, Metro 911 took 375 calls from the Nitro Wal-Mart. Most of those involved reports of accidents and shoplifting."

Disharmony in the Ranks - Updated

Just as little love is lost between the rival groups that vie to represent state teachers (the West Virginia Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia), dueling organizations are sparring in their quest to speak for rank-and-file state workers.

The Associated Press cites a mocking _ and partly inadvertent _ voice mail message as reflective of the acrimony.

The article is a follow-up to Monday's piece highlighting morale problems among different groups of public employees.

Update: Public Broadcasting also has a story on the voice mail, and offers audio from the recording.

Mixed Signals On Special Session

The Charleston Gazette reports that an August special legislative session is likely, with a crackdown on copper and other metal thefts the latest of several possible topics.

But MetroNews says "lawmakers are still debating whether or not there is a need for a special session next month."

Mollohan Under Fire

Before the FBI and IRS stepped up the probe of U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, by searching his home Monday, a House member tried to highlight the federal scrutiny of Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-1st.

Rep. Steven King, R-Iowa, proposed dedicating $1 million in the FBI's budget "to continue and accelerate their investigation so that they can either move forward to completion, or clear the individual who sits underneath this cloud."

While not identifying Mollohan by name during his July 25 floor speech, King cited how "a former member of the Ethics Committee stepped down from the Ethics Committee to avoid the appearance of impropriety during an investigation."

"And yet, since that investigation began," King continued, "the same Member has opted to step forward and take on the gavel of the very appropriations committee that deals with the funding of the investigation that's being conducted."

King referred to press reports regarding Mollohan's appropriations earmarks, personal finances and real estate transactions.

King also quoted from an appearance by U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales before the House Judiciary Committee.

"I asked the Attorney General if he was intimidated... If the chairman of the Justice Appropriations Committee happened to have been under that kind of scrutiny, would that affect the kind of prosecution that takes place out of your Justice Department with regard to that particular Member of Congress?''

"I make no allegations about guilt or innocence," King said. "I simply say that there is a huge question of impropriety when the chairman of justice approps has in one hand the gavel, and in the other hand the pursestrings that funds the very people that are conducting the investigation."

The amendment brought several House members to their feet.

"He has offered an amendment which does absolutely nothing in order to give him an opportunity to talk about something he says he doesn't want to talk about," said House Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis. "Only in Washington would that be believable."

"I'm, indeed, sorry that this amendment has been brought to the floor," said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J. "I think it is totally inappropriate."

Mollohan also responded.

"I would suggest that the gentleman, number one, has expressed a greater knowledge about any investigation than I have," Mollohan said. "Perhaps he has inside knowledge about it. But I could not tell you actually if it exists, because I have never been approached with regard to it."

King persisted.

"I didn't hear a response to the question about the intimidation factor and, in fact, the appearance of impropriety that the man holding the gavel is also holding the purse strings of the agency that is doing the investigation, according to the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal and a number of other publications across this country," King said.

(In his floor speech, Obey had said "The fact is that that gentleman in question has recused himself from all matters relating to the FBI, the Attorney General, the Criminal Division, and U.S. attorneys. That's why I am here on the floor handling those portions of the bill today.")

King's amendment, to a U.S. Justice Department appropriations bill, failed 19-389.

Mollohan and Reps. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, voted against the amendment.

Another 16 House members, meanwhile, merely voted "present."

The Congressional record has the transcript of King's remarks and the responses.

The Hill has a story on the episode.

30 July 2007

West Virginia's Human Capital

The Associated Press' Shaya Tayefe Mohajer highlights the state's efforts to link economic development with education and training.

"Only 16.9 percent of West Virginians aged 25 and older have a bachelor's degree and that's last in the country," Brian Noland, chancellor of the state Higher Education Policy Commission, told AP.

Lighting Up at the Legislature

Communities statewide are wrestling with anti-smoking public health proposals. The Journal of Martinsburg, for instance, reports on Morgan County's indoor air rules taking effect today, while the Charleston Daily Mail reported last week on the issue in Putnam County and at Yeager Airport.

But The Charleston Gazette reports today that a statewide indoor air ordinance may prove elusive: "For one thing, legislators’ offices are exempt from Kanawha County’s smoking ban."

The article continues, "In 1991, former Gov. Gaston Caperton issued an executive order banning smoking at the state Capitol Complex. The order didn’t extend to the Legislature or state Supreme Court. Earlier that year, the House of Delegates restricted smoking in the House chamber, gallery and committee rooms. The Senate doesn’t have a written policy, but it’s understood that smoking isn’t permitted in the chamber and other common areas."

State Government Morale

The Associated Press points out a common thread involving morale among some public workers, in the wake of such recent events as the suicide of a trooper and the ensuing debate over work conditions at the State Police.

Teacher Pensions

The 401(k)-style investment accounts that more than 19,000 educators will rely on for their retirement continue to lag behind the benefits promised by the state's older, traditional pension fund, The Associated Press reports.

Consolidated Public Retirement Board officials offered lawmakers an update this weekend as they appeal a successful challenge of the state's plan to merge its teacher pension offerings.

Just over 1,100 educators with the individual investment accounts are ready to retire, age 60 or older, but only 23 have more than $100,000 saved. The largest of those accounts is only $157,000, compared to the $200,000 to $400,000 in benefits guaranteed by the older plan.

29 July 2007

W.Va.'s Beloved, Bedeviled Capitol

This month's series of legislative interim meetings produced yet another report of decay at West Virginia's circa-1932 state Capitol, The Associated Press reports.

The latest woes include more trouble involving the once and future basement cafeteria, and the buff limestone panels that form its exterior walls.

Though betrayed by neglect throughout its 75 years, the Capitol remains a stirring jewel in a strikingly beautiful crown. The West Virginia Legislature's Office of Reference & Information, which provided the above image, also offers an online history and photo gallery of this majestic building.