10 November 2007

The War for Gambling Dollars: The Western Front

With some of West Virginia's racetracks reporting declines in revenues blamed on competition from Pennsylvania, folks are already attuned to a drive by some in nearby Maryland to legalize slot machines.

But Tuesday's election of Democrat Steve Beshear as governor of Kentucky exposes the Mountain State's flank to a push for legalized gambling there as well, as the Charleston Daily Mail reports.

"Beshear wants to expand casino-style gambling at up to four new freestanding locations along the state's borders with Illinois, West Virginia and Indiana," as "all three states offer such gambling on or near their borders," the article said.

Beshear wants Kentucky lawmakers to put the issue on the statewide ballot in November 2008. "Under Beshear's plan, gambling also would be added to the state's racetracks if voters approved the referendum," the Daily Mail reports.

West Virginia's Northern Panhandle tracks say they're already reaping rewards from voter-approved casino table games, which debuted last month with the opening of poker rooms at those two tracks.

The Eastern Panhandle's Charles Town track, however, saw Jefferson County reject the games there. And while Kanawha County ok'd table games for Nitro's Tri-State track, their value may depend on how far Kentucky goes.

"John Cavacini, president of the West Virginia Racing Association, said it still would be three years before Tri-State faced competition from Kentucky if that state's voters go along with the plan," the Daily Mail reported. "And it's still not clear to what extent Beshear wants to expand gambling -- just to video slots, or to table games as well."

09 November 2007

They Voted for You: Taxes

U.S. Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, helped pass the "Temporary Tax Relief Act of 2007."

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, opposed the bill, but as The Associated Press explains, "Not one House Republican voted for it."

"The 216-193 vote to 'patch' the alternative minimum tax for a year sends the issue to the Senate, where its prospects are at best uncertain," the AP article said. "The White House and Republicans, protesting tax increases in the bill affecting mainly investment fund managers, maintained that it would never become law."

Manchin: No Role in Armstrong Firing

While praising Fred Armstrong's "tremendous service for the state," Gov. Joe Manchin told the Charleston Daily Mail that he was not involved in his firing as archives chief but stood by those who were.

"I have all the confidence in (state Education and Arts secretary) Kay Goodwin and her administrative heads that they would do their jobs," Manchin told the newspaper Friday. "I have all the confidence they would do the job they need to do to get the services we desire to give the people of West Virginia.

Manchin also questioned the speculated reasons behind Armstrong's ouster.

Update: The Charleston Gazette also quizzed the governor Friday.

Update II: WSAZ-TV has video of the Q-&-A with the governor.

Big Coal vs. Big Gas

It's been brewing since Gov. Joe Manchin's failed legislation from August's special session: a dispute over the proximity of new natural gas wells to minable coal seams.

The West Virginia Coal Association and others in the industry have now asked the state Supreme Court to block their gas counterparts from obtaining special permit waivers from the Oil & Gas Conservation Commission.

As The Associated Press reports, the coal interests argue the commission lacks jurisdiction over the kind of well the gas operators seek to drill. They also contend that the closer these wells are drilled to each other, the more they force conflicts with state and federal mine safety rules.

The justices voted 4-0 to consider the writ of prohibition.

They Voted For You: Mukasey

U.S. Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., voted against President Bush's nominee for U.S. attorney general.

The Senate voted 53-40 to confirm Michael B. Mukasey.

The Associated Press has the story.

Manchin Back from China

After tagging along for its eight-day visit to China, Public Broadcasting's Scott Finn assesses the trade mission of West Virginia business leaders headed by Gov. Joe Manchin.

"We walk away from the trip with nothing concrete — no new promises of jobs, no commitment to build a factory in West Virginia," Finn writes on his blog from the trip. "But I don’t think that’s a realistic expectation."

Finn also spoke at length to Public Broadcasting's Beth Voorhees about the trade mission. Audio here.

Table Games Paying Off, Updated

After reporting a surge in slot play since the Oct. 19 debut of poker tables, Mountaineer Race Track & Gaming Resort posted an $11.5 million drop in net revenues during the quarter that ended Sept. 30.

The Associated Press
offers the details. The track's parent, MTR Gaming Group Inc., reported an overall loss of $2.8 million.

President and CEO Ted Arneault blamed the track's revenue slide on the competing Pennsylvania slot venues that helped fuel the push to legalize casino table games in West Virginia.

"Profitability was also hurt by MTR's spending on marketing," AP's Vicki Smith reports. "The track spent $900,000 on a customer-loyalty program during the quarter and $600,000 to support a local referendum that ultimately passed and allowed the track to launch poker, blackjack and other table games."

But Mountaineer soon plans to increase the tables in its new poker room to at least 41. "It's a dynamite room, and so far, that's all we can really judge... On the weekends, there's standing room only," Arneault said.

"Another 50 games, such as blackjack and roulette, should debut by Jan. 1," the AP article said.

They Voted For You: Military Spending

In the shadow of the latest face-off over funding operations in Iraq, the U.S. House on Thursday approved a $471 billion defense spending bill.

All three of West Virginia's members of that chamber - Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, and Nick Rahall, D-3rd - all voted with the 400-15 majority.

But the massive legislation "does not include President Bush's $196 billion request for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, except for an almost $12 billion infusion for new troop vehicles that are resistant to roadside bombs, The Associated Press reports.

Team Romney Lands Key W.Va. GOP Official

West Virginia Republican National Committeewoman Donna Gosney has signed on with the Mitt Romney campaign as as co-chair of its state steering committee.

Gosney joins co-chair and Delegate Bob Ashley, R-Roane, who was named when the steering committee was announced in August.

The state's Republican National Committeeman, James Reed, is backing Rudy Giuliani.

West Virginia Democratic national committee members, Marie Prezioso and Pat Maroney, have thrown their support behind Hillary Clinton.

08 November 2007

They Voted For You: Water Bill Veto Override

The U.S. Senate followed the lead of the House and voted Thursday to override President Bush's veto of the Water Resources Development Act of 2007.

Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., were with the majority in the 79-14 vote.

The override is the first suffered by Bush in his seven-year-old presidency, The Associated Press reports.

Legislature 2008: Teacher Pay

The West Virginia Education Association has unveiled its priority agenda for the regular session that begins in January, and the Charleston Daily Mail has the details:

  • $35,000 salaries for starting teachers, matching the national average, up from the state average of $29,114;
  • $49,109 average salaries for other W.Va. teachers, also per national figures, and up from the current level of $38,284 (that's a $10,825 hill to climb).
"Salary is the most important thing we do to keep a qualified teacher in the classroom," WVEA President Charlie Delauder told the Daily Mail.

Bonus Quote of the Day

"I just feel like, with all those years of service, to be treated this way... even though I am an at-will (employee), I still haven't decided what I'm going to do."

-- Fired state Archives and History Director Fred Armstong, telling MetroNews Talkline that he hasn't ruled out filing a grievance over his abrupt ouster last week (with audio).

Quote of the Day

"I think if he was our age, somebody would have punched him in the face."

-- One of several anonymous congressional aides who complained to The Hill that an "assertive" U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., "barged into," "shoulder-checked" and even "trampled" them and other patrons at the Capitol Lounge during several trips to and from a seat at the bar. (“That’s ludicrous,” the 3rd District congressman said, through a spokeswoman, when asked about the Nov. 1 evening incident.)

Update: Rahall's spokeswoman tells The Charleston Daily Mail the story is a "complete fabrication," "concocted by 20-something Republican staffers with an axe to grind."

W.Va. GOP Convention Update - Updated

In advance of a Nov. 30 deadline, at least 80 Mountain State Republicans have filed for the 1,446 delegate seats slated for the party's "Tsunami Tuesday" Feb. 5 presidential convention, The Associated Press reports.

About 60 percent of the spots will be filled automatically, by county and state party officials and GOP officeholders.

But the party also needs candidates for 610 slots that will be decided when Republicans vote online or at county conventions in January.

Of the 80 people who filed as of Monday, 47 seek those at-large spots. Chairman Bob Fish is banking on the convention web site, e-mails and county-level events to spread the word. The convention also has an advertising budget, he said.

"We're really staking the measure of success on the level of representation we see at the convention," Fish told AP. "That means having as close to 1,446 delegates as possible. That will be the real telling point."

Convention organizers have posted an updated roster of delegates online, along with the necessary registration forms and other info.

"At least 20 other states plan to hold primaries or caucuses Feb. 5," the article said. "But organizers expect West Virginia's convention to post the first results by several hours, potentially giving the party a prominent role in national press coverage."

More than half of the delegates who have registered so far, meanwhile, are not committed to any of the nine participating presidential candidates. Fish said that trend could encourage the candidates to attend personally and make a pitch to delegates during the two-hour speech period.

"It could be that we're seeing people who are planning to make up their mind at the convention," Fish told AP. "If one candidate comes in and really presents himself well, that could be the determining factor."

Update: The number of delegate filings has risen to 104, including 64 for at-large spots. More than half the would-be delegates are uncommitted. Of the rest, 17 support Fred Thompson, 15 support Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani and Ron Paul have six apiece.

Update II: The GOP in New Hampshire, Florida, South Carolina, Michigan and Wyoming have found out the hard way that the national party is serious about Feb. 5 being the earliest date to hold primaries or caucuses. The Republican National Committee has stripped each state of half its delegates to the September presidential convention in Minneapolis-St. Paul, AP reports.

They Voted For You: Anti-Gay Discrimination

U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, voted for legislation Wednesday "to prohibit employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation."

U.S. Reps. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, opposed the
Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which prevailed 235-184.

"Passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act came despite protests from some gay rights supporters that the bill does not protect transgender workers," The Associated Press reports. "That term covers transsexuals, cross-dressers and others whose outward appearance does not match their gender at birth."

A veto from President Bush is expected if the proposal does pass the Senate," the AP article continues.

07 November 2007

Quote of the Day

"At the end of the day, I'm pretty pooped. I'm full of piss and vinegar after I get up and can work hard."

-- Author and statesman Ken Hechler, 93, who tells The Charleston Daily Mail he remains active and plans to write four more books after publishing a 155-page historical work earlier this year.

Table Games Paying Off?

The owners of West Virginia's four racetracks argued they needed casino table games to blunt the threat of competition from gambling legalized by neighboring states.

At least one track says the initial results are proving them right.

"Slot play at Mountaineer Race Track & Gaming Resort in Chester has surged 13.6 percent compared to the same period last year since the Northern Panhandle track opened 37 poker tables Oct. 19," the track reported to The Associated Press last week.

Both Mountaineer and nearby Wheeling Island Racetrack and Gaming Center began offering table games Oct. 19, with Tri-State Racetrack & Gaming Center slated to follow suit.

Voters in those three counties approved table games in elections earlier this year, while Jefferson County voted them down for Charles Town Races & Slots.

AP reported last month that the latter's track owner suffered a sharp fall in earnings during the third quarter.

The state Lottery Commission expressed optimism to The Charleston Gazette last week that table games would shore up lagging video lottery revenues at the Northern Panhandle tracks.

The Lottery gets a hefty take from the thousands of video lottery terminals hosted at all four tracks, and also gets a share from the new table games.

West Virginia's main competitor for gamblers is Pennsylvania, which began opening slot casinos late last year. But in his online column today, MetroNews Talkline host Hoppy Kercheval considers the move afoot in Maryland to join the pack.

School Funding Projects Put on Hold

West Virginia's School Building Authority has postponed considering any funding requests until March, so it can hit up the Legislature for $100 million backed by the sale of bonds, The Associated Press reports.

SBA Executive Director Mark Anthony Manchin tells the AP's Shaya Tayefe Mohajer that the written requests already submitted by 42 counties total $254 million - five time's what's available.

"The funding is for projects generally costing $1 million or more, such as new school construction or adding classrooms," the article said. "Typically, counties with construction needs would be interviewed this month, but Manchin says those interviews won't begin until mid-March, after the session is over. Funding announcements will still be made July 1."

The Journal of Martinsburg localizes the story, focusing on the quest Berkeley and Jefferson counties for a pair of new elementary schools.

They Voted For You: Water Bill Veto Override

The House voted late Tuesday to override President Bush's veto of the Water Resources Development Act with the help of West Virginia's delegation: Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, and Nick Rahall, D-3rd.

The override move attracted enough votes, prevailing 361-54.

The $23.2 billion water resources bill "addresses pressing infrastructure needs while offering hundreds of home district projects," The Associated Press reports. "The Senate, which approved the bill 81-12 in September, could cast its override vote as early as Wednesday."

By my count, the 251-page bill would provide at least $211.4 million to fund a dozen West Virginia projects to prevent and control flooding, develop water resources, and study both protecting watersheds and restoring aquatic ecosystems.

06 November 2007

Fired Director Replaced at Archives - Updated

Cultural and History Commissioner Randall Reid-Smith today promoted Joe Geiger to acting Archives and History director, five days after firing Fred Armstrong as its longtime chief.

The Associated Press has the available details.

(The press release lists a name to contact for more information, so I did. Or, at least I tried: "Thank you for your message. I am out of the office begining Tuesday, November 6 returning on Monday, November 12. I will not have access to email until I return.")

Update: The Charleston Gazette also has a story, along with an editorial on Armstrong's firing and a slew of letters to the editor on the subject.

Quote of the Day

"I don't think it is fair for one kid to make a mistake and punish 40 other kids on the team."

-- Supreme Court Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard, explaining his dissent to the recent ruling that stripped Martinsburg High's football team of two wins because it had fielded an ineligible player. The Parkersburg News covered Maynard's speech to the local Rotary Club.

Annexation Ruling Hits a Nerve

County officials remain fired up over last month's Supreme Court ruling in a Charles Town annexation dispute, which affirmed that counties have no say when landowners voluntary petition for annexation.

"Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper says it's been years since he's seen county commissioners this upset over an issue," MetroNews reports. "Carper says county leaders are upset that some cities are making what some describe as land grabs."

MetroNews also offers audio of Carper's remarks.

As The Associated Press reported Monday, Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, is among lawmakers who want to visit the issue during next year's session.

But municipal officials are urging the status quo. Charleston Mayor Danny Jones told AP that strong cities are key to growth in West Virginia.

"If Delegate Doyle is spoiling for a fight, we're poised and ready for battle," Jones said.

Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard explained the court's recent ruling to a Rotary Club crowd in Parkersburg.

"Maynard couldn't speak about the recent annexation ruling, citing a 30-day appeal; however, he repeated the court's majority opinion," The Parkersburg News reports.

"Maynard said the commission is not a court of appeal," the article said.

"If you want to do something different than that someone needs to get the Legislature to change the law," Maynard is quoted as saying. "(Municipalities)get to make the call... The county has to sign off. That is all they can do."

After The March

Saturday's rally and march in support of Megan Williams, and the verbal tumult that preceded it, has prompted a larger discussion over race relations in the largely white Mountain State.

Public Broadcasting focuses on the dialogue that emerged from the debate over whether certain individuals and groups, including Williams and her family, should take part in Saturday's events. With audio.

MetroNews also finds that the rally/march, and some of its organizers, "touched some nerves." It offers audio from Saturday as well.

Talkline Host Hoppy Kercheval, meanwhile, ponders possible opportunities for continuing the dialogue in his online column today.

05 November 2007

Chipping Away At W. Va.'s Right To Know

West Virginia's Legislature has enacted nearly 100 exceptions to the state's Freedom of Information and Open Governmental Proceedings acts since crafting those laws in the mid-1970s, The Associated Press has found.

"From the results of regulatory probes to the location of endangered wild animals and rare plants, lawmakers have steadily added limits to the public’s right to know," AP reports.

AP ferreted out these added exemptions, mostly tucked away in various corners of the state code, as part of its long-running push for freedom of information, free press and media access (recently recognized by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press).

Lawmakers believe the additions address areas not meant for disclosure under FOIA or the open meetings laws. For at least some of these new limitations, public access advocates disagree.

AP follows up on that review by highlighting the only recourse Mountain State citizens have when their FOIA requests are denied: lawsuits.

(People and businesses, not the press, file the bulk of FOIA requests, according to the public agencies that receive them.)

AP contrasts West Virginia's situation with the different ways other states resolve FOIA disputes or impasses. Much of those findings come from research by Harry Hammitt of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government and published by the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

Advocates for open records and meetings laws include the aforementioned RCFP and NFOIC, the Coalition of Journalists for Open Government, and the annual Sunshine Week.

W.Va. Archives Firing Reverberates

A spotlight remains on last week's abrupt, as-yet-unexplained firing of Fred Armstrong from his 22-year post as director of West Virginia's Archives office.

Phil Kabler questions Armstrong's sacking by Culture and History Commissioner Randall Reid-Smith in The Sunday Gazette-Mail.

"Clearly, this was a bald-faced pre-emptive strike to remove someone who might emerge as a voice of opposition as the Manchin administration moves forward with plans to convert the Cultural Center archives library into a café/catering service/mini-Tamarack gift shop," Kabler opines.

"Although it’s standard policy when a state employee is fired, the fact that Armstrong was escorted out of the Cultural Center with a security guard should be regarded as a slap in the face to all employees who have dedicated years of service to the state."

Kabler also offers, as his quote of the week, Armstrong's take on his former boss: "“He’s a washed-out opera singer who can’t administer unless it’s in a dictatorial way.”

Kabler lays blame for the axing at the feet of Gov. Joe Manchin. "Firing a state employee with just shy of 30 years of service to the state isn’t going to help Manchin’s already strained relationship with rank-and-file state employees," he writes.

"(F)or a usually image-savvy administration, why didn’t Manchin let Armstrong get his 30 years in, then send him off with a big retirement party and accolades?"

Gazette Editorial Page Editor Dawn Miller, meanwhile, chronicles Armstrong's tenure at Archives in a Sunday column. Armstrong rescued the official papers of U.S. Sen. Jennings Randolph, D-W.Va., from certain ruin, convinced regional television stations to send Archives their footage when it becomes too old to keep, ran a grant program to help counties preserve their archived records, and even repaired a falling ceiling in the agency's reading room when General Services proved unable to get to the task in time.

A revealing anecdote closes Miller's column: "On his last day on the job, Armstrong consoled the guard who apologetically showed him out, and gave his security escort a ride home."

Raese Keeping His Name in the Mix

John Raese gave a speech to the Marion County Republican Executive Committee last week that sounded awfully like a campaign stumper to The Times West Virginian of Fairmont.

Headlining the GOP group's annual fundraising dinner, the
industrialist and media owner took swipes at the Democratic presidential field, the state's U.S. Senate delegation and the theory of climate change, the newspaper reported.

“There’s no scientific proof whatsoever that greenhouse emissions are caused by fossil fuels,” Raese said.

Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., meanwhile have failed to "
defend the coal industry against environmentalists and proponents of global warming," Raese said.

The article notes that Raese lost to Byrd last year and that while he lost narrowly to Rockefeller in 1984, "he's
considering running again" against Rockefeller in 2008, Raese told the crowd.

Toward the end, Raese touched on the poll he commissioned earlier this year, which found Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani leading their respective fields in West Virginia and Clinton taking the state in November.

And Raese touted Giuliani as the GOP's best hope, particularly in states with the most electoral votes.

“A lot of the things Rudy stands for I think play well in a lot of those states, plus he’s a national hero,” the newspaper quotes Raese as saying.

But Raese strayed from the Republican playbook on one key point: "
He also bashed Forbes magazine for knocking the state’s business climate, recently ranking it 49th."

“My family has been doing business in West Virginia since 1905. A lot of people have done business and done very well in West Virginia,” Raese told the audience.

Shortly after the speech, Raese's wife hosted the inaugural meeting of a new political group she has founded. More than 100 joined Liz Raese in Morgantown for Saturday's launch of
"Conservative Women of West Virginia."

Legislature 2008: Annexation

Come January, West Virginia's 55 counties plan to lobby lawmakers to at least tweak the 2001 law that has allowed municipalities to annex land whenever the property owners agree.

As The Associated Press reports, counties are crying foul whenever these voluntary petitions create "pipestem" or "shoestring" annexations, where only a road makes the land contiguous to the benefiting city or town.

Municipalities, however, consider the voluntary petition annexations a key contributor to population, tax base and even political influence, as the city of Ranson recently observed in a state Supreme Court brief.

Today's article follows up on an earlier AP report about October's Supreme Court ruling settling an annexation dispute between Jefferson County and Charles Town. The majority concluded that the county cannot block or otherwise interfere with voluntary petition annexations that adhere to the 2001 law.

These annexations, and the Supreme Court ruling, has spurred reactions elsewhere in the state.

The Charleston Daily Mail recorded dismay from Putnam County officials, while The Register-Herald heard from one Beckley-area legislator even before the Supreme Court reached its decision.

The Parkersburg News gauged both support from city official for the current law and discontent from Wood County officials.

04 November 2007

Overdose Deaths: Another Dubious Distinction for W.Va.

Drug overdoses have become the leading killer of Mountain State adults under 45, helping to make that cause of death more prevalent in West Virginia than in any other state, The Charleston Gazette and Public Broadcasting has found.

The joint investigation also unearthed a startling national statistic: "For the first time in modern American history, drug overdoses and other types of poisonings now kill more people than guns."

But for both troubling trends, the culprit is not usually illegal drugs. "Seven of the top 10 drugs that helped to kill West Virginians last year were prescription drugs, according to state medical examiner data," the special report, "Prescription for an Epidemic," found.

As for the national rate, “Prescription narcotic deaths rose 152 percent (between 1994 and 2004). Prescription narcotics now kill five times as many Americans as heroin, and almost twice as many as cocaine," the joint investigation discovered.

Among the various factors that emerge from the detail-rich series:

  • Patients and their family members, particularly children, have been killed by patches that deliver powerful pain drugs. One patient unwittingly increased her patch's release rate to a fatal level by combining it with a heating pad. A 4-year-old fished out an improperly disposed-of patch from the trash, stuck it to himself, and died. "Another child peeled a pain patch off of his sleeping grandmother and stuck it on himself," the series reported.
  • Teenagers raid their parents’ medicine cabinets to throw “pharma parties,” where they toss the pills they find into a bowl for everyone to grab a handful. "That is probably one of the stupidest things I have ever heard about," says a state trooper assigned to drug diversions.
  • West Virginia doctors started the Appalachian Pain Foundation to train providers to prescribe and administer painkillers responsibly. Seeking funds to continue it mission, the Foundation has appealed to Congress, the Legislature "and the state’s $44 million OxyContin settlement, which West Virginia won after Purdue Pharma and three of its executives pleaded guilty to misleading the public about the painkiller’s dangers." The Foundation "came up empty."
The Gazette also offers photos, graphics and audio for the series, which began Sunday.

The joint series reunites Tara Tuckwiller with her former Gazette colleague, Scott Finn, now with Public Broadcasting. Tuckwiller and Finn were the first to report that methadone had become America's most deadly prescription drug. Their award-winning 2006 series, "The Killer Cure," remains posted online.