02 February 2008

Manchin Gives National Dem Address

Gov. Joe Manchin was the Democrat behind the mike Saturday to give the party's weekly national address, The Associated Press reports.

"It's time we establish fiscal discipline so our children and grandchildren don't have to pay for the recklessness of unbalanced budgets," Manchin said. "And I believe that it's going to take a Democratic president to balance the budget, pay down the debt and help struggling middle-class families achieve the American dream."

Capito & Bush

Covering her Thursday speech to the Martinsburg Rotary Club, the Herald-Mail of Hagerstown, Md., included this in its article:

While answering questions from Rotarians, Capito appeared to put some distance between herself and President Bush.

"I think he's had a difficult hand dealt to him," said Capito, adding that history would judge whether the president's decisions on Iraq were right.

"If I had any criticism of the president, ... I think it's the perception - real or otherwise - that he's too stubborn," Capito said.

Capito also noted that she didn't think the president was the best communicator of his policies or initiatives.

When asked about the departure of Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, Capito said Bush's former Cabinet member should have left earlier and probably would be an Achilles' heel for the president's legacy.

One of Capito's would-be Democratic opponents, Anne Barth, was also in the Eastern Panhandle this week. A former longtime aide to U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., Barth held campaign events in Shepherdstown and Martinsburg, The Journal reports.

01 February 2008

Session Shorts, Day 24

ZONING: Eastern Panhandle lawmakers report pushback from officials back home regarding a bill "aiming to change the requirements for enacting and amending zoning ordinances in West Virginia," The Journal of Martinsburg said.

PRESCRIPTION DRUGS: The Charleston Gazette talks to legislators who continue to struggle over "a new law that will require pharmaceutical companies to disclose - in broad terms - what they spend on consumer advertising and on marketing to physicians."

CHILD CUSTODY: Public Broadcasting has a story and audio from a public hearing on pending bills championed by West Virginia's fathers' rights movement.

GHENT DISASTER: "One year after a propane explosion ripped through a convenience store in Ghent, killing four people, industry reform measures are moving through the Legislature," The Register-Herald reports.

OPEN FOR BUSINESS: The Beckley newspaper also reports on dueling, Republican-Democrat views on West Virginia's economy and the road ahead at a legislative breakfest session.

Barth Adopts "11th-Hour Power" Slogan

Anne Barth has embraced her late entry in the 2nd District congressional race, as evidenced by the slogan at Thursday's state Capitol rally.

The Associated Press, The Charleston Gazette and MetroNews (with audio) were among those covering the campaign kickoff.

AP also touches on possible issues in the race: "In 2004, she was one of three statewide coordinators for John Kerry's presidential campaign. That year, she also was one of the founders of DREMA Dems, a group billing itself as a vehicle to help elect liberal women to public office."

Update: Barth hopes to challenge U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, who spent part of Thursday talking about Iraq and pending economic stimulus legislation to Eastern Panhandle voters, The Journal of Martinsburg reports.

Flying West Virginia's Slightly Less Taxed Skies

A Senate committee has endorsed and advanced Gov. Joe Manchin's proposal to "give a tax break to owners of aircraft parked or used in West Virginia," the Charleston Daily Mail reports.

As the newspaper explains, "Manchin's bill would tax airplanes and helicopters owned or leased by commercial airlines, charter carriers and private carriers - including companies that operate aircraft to transport employees or others for business purposes - at salvage value, which is 5 percent of the aircraft's original cost."

The Senate Economic Development Committee acted after officials estimated the $2.3 million in annual lost tax revenues would be offset by resulting growth.

Richard Wachtel, chairman of the West Virginia Aeronautics Commission, "said that by reducing the property tax on corporate jets stored in the state, West Virginia could attract more aircraft and, in turn, more related jobs, including pilots, mechanics, dispatchers and line service personnel," the Daily Mail reported. "Also, the state's airports could build and lease more hangars, counties and municipalities that own airports would receive more fees from the sale of jet fuel and the state would receive more sales tax revenue from the sale of jet fuel and aircraft services, he said."

The Associated Press also has a version of the story. The Charleston Gazette reports that officials in Kanawha County, home to the state's largest airport, support the bill.

MonacoGate Spurs Legislation

A proposed constitutional amendment, to be precise.

The bipartisan resolution introduced Thursday would create a "Judicial Recusal Commission," a three-member panel that "would decide whether a justice or family court or circuit judge should be disqualified from a case."

The Associated Press has the details, and talked to some of its sponsors.

As AP notes, "The measure follows Chief Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard's withdrawal from two pending cases involving Massey Energy Co. He disqualified himself amid allegations regarding his longtime friendship with company President, Chairman and Chief Executive Don Blankenship."

The European vacation photos highlighting that friendship continue to make a splash. Massey and Blankenship have also weathered other news this week, besides the nationally televised book tour comments by John Grisham about his latest legal thriller:

  • "The National Labor Relations Board wants a federal court to force Massey Energy Co. to rehire 85 United Mine Workers members and negotiate a new union contract at a coal mine it bought out of bankruptcy in 2004," AP reports. The Charleston Gazette and MetroNews also have the story.
  • AP also reports that Massey's "fourth-quarter profit fell 36 percent to $5.1 million as it launched expansion projects to capitalize on favorable market conditions."

31 January 2008

Dust Still Not Settled from 2008 Election Filings

  • The other Democrats seeking to challenge U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, tell the Charleston Daily Mail that Anne Barth is no shoo-in, despite a flurry of endorsements from party bigwigs.
  • An incumbent legislator is among the casualties who failed to file completed paperwork before last week's deadline. As The Associated Press reports, Delegate Cliff Moore, D-McDowell, finds himself off the primary ballot because his certificate of candidate was not notarized. "Moore said he's asked a lawyer to research his options," AP reports. "But he also said the mistake was his, and that he's not going to press the issue if it means making McDowell County look bad."
  • He was barely in to begin with: Huntington hotel manager Phil Cline mailed in his filing to challenge U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. The Republican's filing beat the deadline, but now he's withdrawn. The Herald-Dispatch has the details.
  • The Huntington newspaper also reports that former mayor and Cabell lawmaker Bobby Nelson is among the last-minute filers, taking a stab at a House of Delegates seat.

Legislature 2008: Hunting

Whether caused by the graying nature of its population, or the blight on society known as Guitar Hero, the ranks of licensed hunters in West Virginia have dropped by 17 percent over the last decade.

The Associated Press reports on one lawmaker's proposal to tackle the situation: mandating firearm safety programs in public schools.

"Seventh- through ninth-graders could opt for instruction in topics ranging from survival skills to gun safety, but the weapons would have dummy ammunition or be disabled," AP's Tom Breen explains. "Sen. Billy Wayne Bailey, who introduced the bill this month, doesn't envision students firing real guns during class time."

Breen also reports that the issue is a financial one as well: "This month, Gov. Joe Manchin proposed spending $1.8 million on DNR's law enforcement efforts to make up for revenue lost because of the decline of hunting and fishing permits."

Breen's article, also found here, observes as well that "West Virginia, where roughly 320,000 people participated in the recent two-week gun season for bucks, may be the only state contemplating such a bill, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures."

They Voted For You: Economic Stimulus

Supporters of the Recovery Rebates and Economic Stimulus for the American People Act of 2008 included all three of West Virginia's U.S. House members.

Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, voted for the proposal "to provide economic stimulus through recovery rebates to individuals, incentives for business investment, and an increase in conforming and FHA loan limits."

It prevailed 385-35.

But as The Associated Press reports, "the Senate is set to begin voting on dueling economic aid proposals, as senators rush to add jobless benefits and tax rebates for high earners, the elderly, and disabled veterans" to the House-passed measure.

The article also explains that the bill "would send rebates of $500-$1,000 to all but the richest taxpayers. Families also would get $300 for each child. Senators could begin voting as early as Thursday in hopes of completing the package by week's end."

The Edwards and Giuliani Factors in W.Va.

Republican Rudy Giuliani was counting on 41 delegates to the state GOP convention before dropping out of the race. Just eight of his 63 supporters who signed up for at-large seats won in the recent voting.

Giuliani had also visited West Virginia twice in 2007, more than any candidate except fellow Republican Mitt Romney. But his efforts in the Mountain State suffered a blow with the death of his point man here, Robert Gould.

As of Sept. 30, Giuliani had raised more than $113,000 in West Virginia, more than any other candidate save Democrat Hillary Clinton, from more than 90 donors.

John Edwards, meanwhile, had raised $92,000 from 169 West Virginians as of Sept. 30 (more recent reports should be posted within the next week).

Ending his presidential bid Wednesday, Edwards had also visited West Virginia in 2007. His wife headlined a fundraiser as well - though by phone, after having scheduled an in-person appearance.

30 January 2008

John Grisham, Don Blankenship and West Virginia

There had been talk of uncanny parallels between West Virginia 2004 state Supreme Court race and The Appeal, the latest legal thriller from John Grisham.

Promoting the release of his new book, the "best-selling novelist of the 1990s" ended such speculation Tuesday, on NBC's Today show.

From the web site for the top-rated morning program:

The story plays out with a chemical company found guilty of dumping toxic waste and liable for the deaths of scores of people in a fictional Mississippi town. The owner of the company tries to get out of paying a $41 million settlement by spending millions to help elect a justice to the Mississippi Supreme Court that will swing the appeal the other way.

When (Matt) Lauer asked if such a story was far-fetched, Grisham said, “It’s already happened.”

“It happened a few years ago in West Virginia. A guy owned a coal company. He got tired of getting sued. He elected his guy to the Supreme Court. It switched 5-4 back his way and he didn’t worry about getting sued.”

Today also offers video of the interview.

It's unclear whether the recent release of Monaco vacation photos will prove sufficiently well-timed to influence sales. But Grisham's remark coincides with a revisiting of the 2004 election that has Justice Brent Benjamin fielding requests for his recusal in at least one Massey case.

As The Associate Press and others have previously reported, Blankenship has estimated spending $3.5 million on a wide-ranging independent political campaign that supported Benjamin's candidacy while attacking his opponent, incumbent Justice Warren McGraw.

Addressing the topic of judicial selection, the AP's Tom Breen includes Grisham's TV comments. His story also observes that Benjamin "has also ruled against Massey in at least three cases since joining the court, records show. Those included two challenges to West Virginia's severance tax that together involved more than $505 million owed by Massey and other coal operators."

The article notes as well that "Benjamin helped form the 3-2 majority that reversed a $76.3 million judgment won by Harman against Massey," but "then voted last week to vacate that November decision and rehear the appeal."

Grisham's publisher paints the apparently-Benjamin-inspired character as "a young, unsuspecting candidate" recruited by the villainous company owner ("Carl Trudeau") and "his political operatives." Through "an intricate web of conspiracy and deceit," they "finance him, manipulate him, market him, and mold him into a potential Supreme Court justice. Their Supreme Court justice," the publisher's blurb reads.

The Charleston Gazette and Public Broadcasting each has a story focusing on Grisham's novel and its apparent inspiration.

Session Shorts, Day 22

PROMISE: "Still seeking to keep PROMISE scholars in West Virginia once they graduate," Gov. Joe Manchin tells The Associated Press that "the merit-based program could grant case-by-case exceptions for those unable to land Mountain State jobs in their degree areas."

ARCHIVES & FOOD: The Charleston Gazette accompanied lawmakers on a tour of the Cultural Center, where officials "insist that plans for a café/gift shop in the Culture Center are still in the preliminary stages." The House Government Organization Committee is set to consider a bill that "not only would ban the sale of food or drink in the building, but would prohibit merging the archives library with the Library Commission lending library on the other side of the Cultural Center."

JAIL COSTS: The Senate Judiciary Committee has advanced a bill that would halve daily jail fees for counties whenever their inmates stay locked up for less than 12 hours. But as The Register-Herald reports, "sentiment ran high against it and a leading corrections official dubbed it as worthless."

OIL & GAS: The Beckley newspaper also profiles legislation offering a "
Surface Owner’s Bill of Rights," which addresses disputes with oil and natural gas drillers.

MonacoGate Prompts Another Maynard Recusal

Without comment, Supreme Court Chief Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard withdrew from another case involving Massey Energy Co. on Tuesday, after lawyers for the other side invoked his Riviera rendezvous with Don Blankenship.

As The Associated Press reports, "Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. sought to disqualify Maynard as it prepares to defend a $240 million judgment it has won against Massey."

Maynard's Monaco met up with Blankenship, Massey's chief executive, one year before a Brooke County jury agreed that the coal producer "and one of its subsidiaries breached a supply contract, by diverting the promised coal to the spot market to take advantage of higher prices," the article said.

Wheeling-Pitt and its co-plaintiff cite other signs of the social ties between the two men, including their admissions upon the photos' release, and contend Maynard had not been sufficiently forthcoming.

"Reasonable people must question Justice Maynard's ability to fairly consider this matter which involves a very substantial judgment against Massey," the Tuesday filing is quoted as saying.

The Charleston Gazette also has a story. In a separate article, the Gazette also has Maynard's comments regarding his recent release of a credit card record stemming from the Monaco meet-up. From that article:

"I hope that the public will look at the receipts and know I paid my own way," he said Tuesday, after a budget presentation to the House Finance Committee. "I hope that's the end of it, but if it's not, we'll deal with it as it comes."
MetroNews also has a story, and audio, from his Tuesday comments.

29 January 2008

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Nor, sometimes, does grandstanding, depending on how you look at it.

The Politico chides Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, for sponsoring a successful resolution "Commending the West Virginia University Mountaineer football team for exemplifying the pride, determination, and spirit of the Mountain State and overcoming adversity with skill, commitment, and teamwork to win the 2008 Tostitos Fiesta Bowl."

The Politico offers Virginia Tech as a stronger candidate for the adversity-beating mantle:

Virginia Tech came back and almost won the national championship this season. West Virginia, meanwhile, choked horribly in a Dec. 1 loss to the Pittsburgh Panthers. which cost the Mountaineers a chance to play for a national championship. Not good.

So if WVU, which is a great school with a great football program, deserves a resolution honoring it's bowl victory, let the House also pass resolutions honoring the other 30 bowl champions. Fair is fair.

MetroNews also noted the resolution, whose 34 co-sponsors include Reps. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, and Nick Rahall, D-3rd.

Dirty Tricks in West Virginia

West Virginia's 1996 race for governor earns a mention in How to Rig an Election: Confessions of a Republican Operative, a new tell-all by Allen Raymond.

A Washington Post article on the book and its author recounts this from Raymond's days as the Republican National Committee's director for the Mid-Atlantic region:

Among the victims was Charlotte Pritt, a Democrat running for governor of West Virginia in 1996. In the state legislature, Pritt had supported a bill to teach sex education in middle schools. Raymond turned those "innocent facts," he writes, into a 30-second ad that screamed: "Charlotte Pritt proposed teaching first-graders about condoms!"

The lie worked: Pritt lost to Raymond's candidate.
The Charleston Gazette picked up the tidbit for a Tuesday editorial.

Session Shorts, Day 21: Updated

FLUNKING AND DRIVING: "High school drivers aren't welcoming the prospect that the state, not their parents, could soon revoke their driving privileges if they get bad grades," the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington reports.

DRIVING (update): As for adult drivers who have lost their licenses, the Charleston Daily Mail reports on House and Senate bills that would allow them "to petition a judge for permission to get behind the wheel."

VICTIMS' RIGHTS: The movement to keep victims in the loop about the proceedings against criminal defendants has a champion in Delegate Gerald Crosier, D-Monroe and that county's former sheriff. So reports The Register-Herald of Beckley, citing a bill he's co-sponsored on the topic.

SUGAR-FREE SCHOOLS: Both The Associated Press and The Charleston Gazette report on Monday's decision by lawmakers to return oversight of beverage machines in public schools to the state Department of Education.

Election 2008 Shorts: Updated

  • Since state Sen. John Unger abandoned his congressional bid abruptly Saturday, "attorneys are trying to determine what should be done with campaign funds raised" by the Berkeley County Democrat, The Journal of Martinsburg reports.
  • Unger explains to The Charleston Gazette that "the idea of raising money all the time to be elected to Congress would leave him politically beholden to special interests," and that "his short foray into the 2nd Congressional District race opened his eyes enough to believe the system has to change."
  • (Update) The Charleston Daily Mail talks to pundits and party officials in the wake of Barth's entry. One national observer still considers Capito the "substantial favorite," the article said, while Congressional Quarterly "changed its rating of the race to 'Republican Favored,' which is a slightly less competitive rating than the 'Leans Republican' classification it had been given with Unger running."
  • The Gazette also reports that the 79-year-old mayor of Clendenin is the sole Republican filed to keep the opening seat in the 8th Senate district in the GOP column. Bob Ore joins a race that features multi-term Delegate Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, in the Democratic field.
  • Gov. Joe Manchin has appointed press aide Sarah Payne Scarbro as his 2008 re-election campaign's coordinator, the Herald-Dispatch. Scarbro is "taking an unpaid leave of absence to work the campaign," while "an official opening date of Manchin's 2008 campaign headquarters as well as an open house will be announced in the coming days," the Huntington newspaper reports.
  • (Update): Mailed-in candidacy filings postmarked in time include one from Huntington Republican Phil Cline, who wants to take on U.S. Sen Jay Rockefeller. General manager of the Pullman Plaza Hotel, Cline told the Herald-Dispatch that while he considers the four-term Democrat a friend (and has even raised money for him), "I got to praying about what he's done recently in the Senate and I felt he should not get a free pass to become senator without an election."

Legislature 2008: Taxes

State senators are taking aim at West Virginia's much-derided business franchise tax this session, building on legislation passed last year that is gradually whittling it down.

As Public Broadcasting, The Register-Herald and MetroNews report, a bill introduced Monday would kill off the tax in 2012.

"Existing law provides a gradual reduction of the tax until 2012, when it reaches the rate of .21 percent, and remains at that number," the Beckley newspaper explained. "The newest bill, however, would erase the final increment."

The tax is based on a business' net equity, which includes stock value and retained earnings. MetroNews also has audio.

Taxes are also the topic of today's column from MetroNews Talkline Host Hoppy Kercheval. The Charleston Gazette, meanwhile, reports that "
there's a new line on state income tax forms this year, for reporting taxes due on Internet purchases. But there isn't a new fervor on the state's part to crack down on such collections."

WVU Reaches Outside State for DaughterGate Probe

Educators from New York, Missouri and Pennsylvania will help West Virginia University "investigate allegations that Gov. Joe Manchin's daughter was granted a master's degree she didn't earn," The Associated Press reports.

Arthur Centonze of Pace University, Lori Franz of the University of Missouri and John Burkoff of Pitt will join the panel assigned to "assess the validity of an executive master's of business administration awarded to Heather Bresch," AP's Vicki Smith writes.

Others with the story include WVU's own Daily Athenaeum and MetroNews, which offers audio of the Faculty Senate chairman as well as a timeline for the ongoing story.

Spike & Don: We Went Dutch to Monaco

The Associated Press reports that "Supreme Court Chief Justice Elliott 'Spike'' Maynard's re-election campaign has offered a credit card record to counter questions raised about his 2006 Monaco meet-up with Massey Energy Co. President, Chairman and Chief Executive Don Blankenship."

Maynard had promised to produce "receipts and records" when he stated "I paid my own way" in the wake of the Monaco photos' release.

The document shown to AP "indicates Maynard bought a pair of $2,077 plane tickets six days before the July 2 (2006) departure date, and a $1,393 travel package from Expedia.com two days later," the article said. "The campaign said the latter covered Maynard's hotel expenses."

The article also quotes yet another legal scholar critical of the socializing revealed by the photos. Georgetown University law professor Roy Schotland "said Maynard showed 'zero judgment,'" adding "I'm floored. That's why I go to the word judgment. You don't do that.''

Blankenship is on the board of directors for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the publication it bankrolls in West Virginia has its own view.

28 January 2008

Election 2008: Candidate Filing Tidbits

  • The Associated Press has a run-down of the (non-presidential) federal and statewide candidates who filed by Saturday's midnight deadline, as well as an overview of legislative races.
  • The Journal of Martinsburg talked to Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, after his abandoned his effort to challenge U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd. Seeking a fifth term, Capitol spent part of the weekend raising funds in Greenbrier County, The Register-Herald reports.
  • The Beckley newspaper also spoke to Delegate Mel Kessler, D-Raleigh, who insists he's not getting wobbly after filing to oppose Gov. Joe Manchin in their party's primary.
  • Delegate Locke Wysong joined the ranks of House incumbents (all or mostly Democrats at last count) opting against re-election. The Journal reports on his decision, and on the two candidate vying to take his place.
  • The Dominion Post of Morgantown (subscription required) reports that ex-lawmaker turned-lobbyist-turned-columnist Cindy Frich has filed for the House seat she lost in the 2006 election.
  • WVHotline has been updating its roster of all House and Senate candidates.
  • (Update) MetroNews talks to folks from both parties about the filing highlights (w/audio).

DaughterGate Update

  • Both The Associated Press and MetroNews are among those reporting on the pending decision from WVU’s Faculty Senate "to select three new panelists" to the team investigating the degree "who have no association with the school or the state government."

MonacoGate Highlights W.Va. Recusal Rule

The demand has not ended for justices to recuse themselves from a pending Supreme Court case involving Massey Energy Co., following the withdrawal of Chief Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard.

But as The Associated Press reports, the rule governing recusal requests remains unchanged: the justice under fire gets the final say.

"It is the individual justice's decision," Caprice Roberts, a law professor at West Virginia University, told AP. "There's an incredible amount of discretion."

The article also examines Massey's lawsuit challenging the recusal rule, filed just after the Monaco meet-up between Maynard and its boss, Don Blankenship.

The saga has prompted editorials in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington and the Parkersburg News, among others.

The Supreme Court has set a March 12 rehearing for the $76.3 million judgment against Massey at issue in the case. The Charleston Gazette, meanwhile, reports that another, much large judgment against Massey is headed to the Supreme Court.

The Maynard-Massey matter continues to attract press attention beyond the state's borders, with this article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Update: The Charleston Daily Mail calls for Starcher's recusal in an editorial. Starcher had asked for more time last week to consider stepping down, according to the rehearing order. Lawyers for Harman Mining Co. and Hugh Caperton also want to see his withdrawal -- but only if Justice Brent Benjamin goes as well, their statement last week said (both documents posted by Public Broadcasting).

Legislature 2008: Teacher Pensions

The Associated Press spoke to West Virginia school teachers who say they can't retire because of insufficient benefits in their 401(k)-style accounts.

"State officials estimate that the average such account contains less than $34,000," AP reports. "For the 1,100 account holders age 60 or older, only 23 have more than $100,000. The largest of those has $157,000."

Lawmakers had proposed merging such accounts into the larger, traditional pension program for teachers. But any such merger must be voluntary, after a mandatory plan was derailed by satisfied account holders who sued the state.

Lawmakers expect a bill from Gov. Joe Manchin, perhaps as early as this week, that would embrace a voluntary merger plan. Administration officials say they're still working on the tricky details.

After devoting more than $1.4 billion toward pension debts over the last several years, Manchin and lawmakers want to avoid reversing gains made on the funding gap," AP reports. "The 'right' enrollees must also be willing to merge: the cost to the pension program will depend on the age and years of service of those who switch over. "

MetroNews also spoke to educators about their pension woes.