15 February 2008

They Voted For You: Contempt of Congress

U.S. Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, voted for a resolution "recommending that the House of Representatives find Harriet Miers and Joshua Bolten, Chief of Staff, White House, in contempt of Congress for refusal to comply with subpoenas."

The measure prevailed 223-32, with Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, joining 162 other House Republicans in a boycott of the vote.

As The Associated Press explains, "Republicans said Democrats should instead be working on extending a law — set to expire Saturday — allowing the government to eavesdrop on phone calls and e-mails in the United States in cases of suspected terrorist activity."

The White House was similarly unimpressed, calling the resolution "unprecedented" and "outrageous."

"It is the first time in 25 years that a full chamber of Congress has voted on a contempt of Congress citation," AP reported, "and the White House quickly pointed out that it was the first time that such action had been taken against top White House officials who had been instructed by the president to remain silent to preserve executive privilege."

Capito spoke to MetroNews amid the boycott. "The measure approved by the Senate is stalled in the House, where Capito says political forces are in a dangerous game of tug-of-war," it reported. "She lays the blame squarely at the feet of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi."

Capito spoke to the Charleston Daily Mail as well.

AP also noted that "
The contempt debate sparked an unusually bitter scene even in the fractious House. Democrats accused Republicans of marring the Capitol memorial for their fallen colleague Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., by interrupting it with a protest vote."

Session Shorts, Day 38

BUSINESS TAX: West Virginia would continue to whittle down its business franchise tax, erasing it completely in 2015, under a compromise reached between lawmakers and Manchin officials, The Charleston Gazette reports.

A Senate committee has greatly changed Gov. Joe Manchin's proposal to phase out a severance tax credit. The Associated Press and The Register-Herald offer details.

DUI: AP also reports on movement for a bill "that would require first-time DUI offenders with a blood alcohol level of .15 or greater to have an "interlock" system installed on their car." The Parkersburg News quizzes local lawmakers on the measure.

PUBLIC EMPLOYEES: MetroNews covered Thursday's Capitol rally of retired state workers who blame Manchin for changes to their health coverage. The state program "switched 37,000 retirees from Medicare to the Advantra Freedom program last summer," the report said. "The retirees say they now have trouble getting out-of-state doctors and hospitals to accept their health insurance." With audio.

14 February 2008

Legislature 2008: Teacher Pensions

As early as today, the House Finance Committee is expected to continue the work of another House panel in reshaping Gov. Joe Manchin's plan for a merger of teacher pension funds.

The Pensions and Retirement Committee voted Wednesday to make it easier for teachers with 401(k)-style accounts to receive full benefits under the state's other, more traditional pension fund.

Instead of a formidable payment calculated from salary levels and years of service, the amended bill would require teachers to pay the difference in employee contribution rates set by the two programs.

But as The Associated Press reports, a merger would still require a vote by account holders. Manchin had proposed requiring at least 70 percent of these 19,100 enrollees to approve and then take part in a transfer. Wednesday's amendments raise that special election threshold to 75 percent.

MetroNews reports on the changes to the governor's bill, highlighting the $78 million "upfront" payment it would require from the state (audio here). Manchin had touted to AP the revenue neutral aspect of the original bill.

The Charleston Gazette
also examines the dual approaches. Senators tell AP, meanwhile, that they haven't ruled out pursuing a third option to tackle the pension merger question.

Benjamin Targeted by Recusal Request

Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel and its co-plaintiff want Justice Brent Benjamin off the case as the Supreme Court prepares to hear Massey Energy's appeal of the $240 million judgment they've won in Brooke County.

As The Associated Press reports, Wheeling-Pitt and Mountain State Carbon cite the "staggering and unprecedented amount of money'' that Massey CEO Don Blankenship spent on the 2004 election that brought Benjamin to the court.

It also ties that massive campaign _ estimated by Blankenship to cost $3.5 million _ to a pre-trial boast by the coal executive and the company's decision to set aside only $16 million to cover the damages.

"Court rules require justices to recuse themselves whenever their 'impartiality might reasonably be questioned,' but leaves the decision solely to the targeted jurist," the article said.

The plaintiffs have already successfully petitioned for Chief Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard's recusal, with MonacoGate prompting him to withdraw from at least three pending Massey cases.

Benjamin (corrected) has twice refused to disqualify himself from another Massey appeal, and the latest recusal petition questions those responses.

The petition also brings up Benjamin's votes on who should be chief justice of the court. It even invokes The Appeal, the new #1 best-seller from John Grisham that was apparently inspired by the 2004 Supreme Court race.

That book portrays what would be the Benjamin character as an unsuspecting candidate, recruited unwittingly by the villainous corporate executive who schemes to buy a Supreme Court seat to avoid a huge jury verdict.

The Associated Press has also noted that "Benjamin has ruled against Massey in at least three cases since joining the court, records show. Two of those decisions rebuffed Massey's attempts to avoid paying millions of dollars in coal severance taxes."

Legislature 2008: PROMISE

Gov. Joe Manchin has raised the white flag over his proposal to change the PROMISE scholarship program, ending his push for legislation and replacing that effort with a study.

Manchin wanted to see PROMISE become at least a partial loan for scholars who didn't stay in the state to work after graduation. But the legislation "has sat idle in the House and Senate education committees since the session's opening days," The Associated Press reports, "having attracted mixed reviews at best from legislators and students alike."

The bill was met by questions over how the loan conversion would work, its fairness given the state's economy, and other policy implications.

AP caught up with Manchin just as he was explaining his decision to visiting high school students.

"I knew one thing: it would get you talking," it quoted him as saying. "The governor has the bully pulpit to make you talk about it."

The Charleston Gazette also has a story, as does MetroNews.

13 February 2008

Election 2008 Shorts (Corrected)

PRESIDENT: The Associate Press reports that the White House candidates "spent more than $90,000 in West Virginia during the last quarter of 2007, without any of them setting foot in the Mountain State." Mitt Romney forked out the most, $30,084, as he and other GOP hopefuls geared up for the Feb. 5 convention.

CONGRESS: U.S. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., had a commanding $3.7 million in the bank as of Jan. 1, according to his latest federal report. AP has details and also offers on-hand totals for the rest of the delegation on the 2008 ballot:

  • Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-1st: ; $69,737 (corrected);
  • Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd: $643,865;
  • Rep. Nick Rahall, D-3d: $1.2 million (corrected).
Mollohan is unopposed. Rahall and Capito's opponents did not file reports, or entered the race after they were due. The reports also show that state Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, raised $221,000 before dropping his bid to challenge Capito last month.

AG Under Fire from Lawmakers

Attorney General Darrell McGraw continues to catch flak from legislators over some of his office's policies, particularly its handling of settlement proceeds.

The Charleston Daily Mail focuses on sharp exchanges between McGraw and the House Finance Committee, as he presented his office's budget request.

Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, summed up for McGraw a key criticism of lawmakers:

That is your attempts, once you've won the money, to appropriate it. That is constitutionally the job of the Legislature to appropriate money. The minute your office or any office gets money for the state of West Virginia, that money is instantly the property of the taxpayers of West Virginia. Therefore, the Legislature must decide how it is spent.
"McGraw has maintained judges ultimately determine how settlement money should be spent," the article said. It added that judges "sign off on settlement agreements written by attorneys involved in a case."

Update: Public Broadcasting also covered the House Finance meeting, and has audio.

Session Shorts, Day 36 - Updated

COUNTING CALORIES: The Associated Press weighs a bill "that would encourage restaurants to list the caloric content of their food on menus or, for drive-thru windows, on the signboards drivers order from." "It's been shown that when you have this point of service information, the average person will make a choice that involves fewer calories,'' sponsor Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha, told AP health care writer Tom Breen.

DEER IN HEADLIGHTS: West Virginians motorists would pay deductibles of no more than $200 for repairing damage from hitting deer, under a bill highlighted by The Register-Herald of Beckley.

GAMBLING: The Senate Banking and Insurance Committee has effectively killed a bill "that would have banned ATM machines in neighborhood video slot parlors," The Charleston Gazette reports. "Under current state law, establishments that offer limited video lottery may have ATMs on the premises, as long as the ATM is located in an area removed from the video machines."

TEACHER PENSIONS: The Gazette also reports that Gov. Joe Manchin's bill to allow a merger of teacher retirement funds would double the estimated cost of ensuring full benefits for teachers who transfer. But the governor stood by his proposal in a MetroNews interview (audio here).

(Update:) A House committee has scaled back the proposed make-up payment while increasing the approval margin required in the special election on the merger question. AP has details and initial reaction.

Paying for the Economic Stimulus

The ties between the federal and West Virginia tax systems could end up costing the state under the recently approved economic stimulus package, The Charleston Gazette reports.

The article cites the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a center-left think tank in Washington, D.C., which "has said West Virginia state revenues will drop by as much as $72 million."

"The stimulus plan contains an accelerated business depreciation provision and an expensing provision, both of which will increase federal deductions for corporations and businesses," the Gazette explains. "The state and federal tax codes basically follow the same rules, so any increase in federal deductions probably means less state revenue."

The center's in-state affiliate, the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, says "the package includes tax credits for businesses totaling roughly $50 billion that could cost West Virginia $74 million in lost revenue."

"State officials say the center's estimate is far too high, but they do agree the stimulus package could result in a loss of revenue, probably in the 2010 fiscal year," the article said. "Their current prediction is the following fiscal year, the stimulus package would leave the state about even in tax collections, but the 2010 fiscal year could be a loss of about $20 million."

They Voted For You: FISA

U.S. Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., split their votes Tuesday on the "FISA Amendments Act of 2007."

Byrd opposed the measure, "An original bill to amend the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act of 1978, to modernize and streamline the provisions of that Act, and for other purposes."

Rockefeller helped pass it on a 68-29 vote.

The two were similarly divided on an amendment that aimed "to strike the provisions providing immunity from civil liability to electronic communication service providers for certain assistance provided to the Government."

It was defeated 31-67, with Byrd supporting the amendment and Rockefeller voting nay.

As The Associated Press explains, "protection for the telecom companies is the most prominent feature of the legislation, something President Bush had insisted on as essential to getting private sector cooperation in spying on foreign terrorists and other targets. The bill would give retroactive protection to companies that acted without court permission."

12 February 2008

Session Shorts, Day 35

ATVs: Pending all-terrain vehicle legislation could be bolstered by a state-commissioned study that found that two-thirds of fatal ATV wrecks between 2005 and 2007 occurred on paved roads. The Associated Press has the details.

TOO DUMB TO DRIVE: The House Education Committee has embraced changes to Gov. Joe Manchin's driver's license bill, replacing its "C" or better mandate for high school drivers. As The Register-Herald of Beckley reports, the amended bill would instead yank licenses for chronic absences, school-related crimes or disruptive behavior.

WORKERS' COMPENSATION: With lawmakers considering several proposals stemming from the privatization of the state system, President and CEO Greg Burton of the state-created BrickStreet Insurance Co. explained the situation to the Parkersburg Rotary Club. The News reports.

SCHOOL BULLIES: Pending legislation targeting bullies and other students that disrupt classrooms has been shipped off "to a subcommittee for some fine-tuning," the Beckley newspaper reports.

Election 2008: Short Takes (Updated)

SUPREME COURT: The four Democrats running for two state Supreme Court seats met at a Jefferson County forum, covered by The Journal of Martinsburg. The event also attracted several sign-wielding protesters targeting Chief Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard. He's embroiled in a scandal involving Monaco vacation photos that have helped prompt his recusal from at least three pending cases.

Candidate and former Justice Margaret Workman, who took part in the forum, earlier called for a series of debates for the Supreme Court candidates in an interview with The Intelligencer of Wheeling.

(Update) The sole Republican candidate, Beth Walker, meanwhile tells The Shephersdstown Observer that "that she has been in talks with controversial political donor and CEO of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship. Walker would not say whether Mr. Blankenship has committed to supporting her campaign."

(Update II: Roman Stauffer, director of Walker's campaign, says that "Beth has been working hard for months to speak with as many West Virginians as possible regarding her Supreme Court candidacy... In the course of that effort, she spoke with Mr. Blankenship on one occasion. Accordingly, it is not accurate to state that Beth is 'in talks' with Mr. Blankenship.")

GOVERNOR: Gov. Joe Manchin opened his re-election HQ on Monday, in Kanawha City, and The Charleston Gazette was there. Manchin has also launched a campaign Web site.

ATTORNEY GENERAL: The Charleston Daily Mail highlights television ads targeting Attorney General Darrell McGraw over his handling of settlement proceeds.

LEGISLATURE: The Journal of Martinsburg and The Parkersburg News focus on local House of Delegates candidates.

Legislature 2008: Teacher Pensions

With less than four weeks left in the legislative session, Gov. Joe Manchin has trotted out his proposed aid for teachers with paltry 401(k)-style retirement accounts.

Though the bill would allow these accounts to merge into the state's traditional pension fund for teachers, "At least 70 percent of all account holders - or about 13,400 enrollees - would have to approve and take part in a merger," The Associated Press reports.

"And unless they paid an 'actuarial reserve' higher than previously estimated, Monday's measure would offer transfers only three-fourths of the benefit that regular pension members receive," the article continued.

Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, told The Register-Herald of Beckley that "it appears the administration’s bill doesn’t chip in any money, meaning the balance of pensions would have to be made up by the teachers, or the state."

AP previously heard from teachers urging some sort of bailout. The Charleston Gazette also has a story on the bill.

MetroNews has a segment on the bill (with audio) and on the less-than-thrilled reaction by teacher groups (also with audio).

Public Broadcasting has a story on the bill, and examines why West Virginia has two separate retirement programs for teachers.

11 February 2008

Session Shorts, Day 34

AIRCRAFT TAXES (Update): School administrators tell the Charleston Daily Mail that the governor's proposed tax break for corporate and commercial aircraft should not hurt their funding, which comes from property taxes. The article estimates the annual price tag for Kanawha County at $800,000.

The Register-Herald highlights a bill "requiring certain qualifications for school coaches." “The policy right now is very much like the rest of the personnel law within the education system, which is whoever has the most seniority gets the job," sponsor and Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, tells the Beckley newspaper. "If the teacher wants the job, the teacher gets the job.”

VICTIMS' RIGHTS: The family of a man murdered in 1990 are among the supporters of legislation to give crime victims or their survivors a greater voice in court proceedings. The Dominion Post of Morgantown tells the story of Jan and Roger McQuaid and details the pending bill.

"West Virginia could become the first state required to use traffic video surveillance to track missing children during Amber Alert activations," the Daily Mail reports, quoting lawmakers.

WORKERS' COMPENSATION: MetroNews reviews two proposals that aim to help complete the privatization of West Virginia's program.

W.Va. GOP Convention: A Final Look

The Associated Press explores the pros and cons of last week's West Virginia Republican Party Convention.

Besides the obvious coup of attracting three of the four remaining candidates, the wisdom in not waiting until the May 13 primary was reaffirmed when Mitt Romney suspended his campaign Thursday.

But ill feelings persist over the deal-making that delivered Mike Huckabee the win in the second round of voting. Allegations of disenfranchisement remain as well.

"I hope it was an experiment and is not institutionalized," Bill Phillips, who helped run Romney's in-state campaign, told AP. "It does leave a lot of Republicans out of the process."

John Grisham Novel Hits #1

The Appeal, apparently inspired by West Virginia's 2004 state Supreme Court race, takes the top spot on The New York Times hardcover nonfiction list.

It also elicits a Janet Maslin review ("Mr. Grisham delivers his savviest book in years.")

National Public Radio, meanwhile, explores Grisham's recent comments invoking the '04 race and Don Blankenship's role therein.

Blankenship is also taking it on the chin in the nonfiction world. Reviewers of Coal River continue to comment on the Massey Energy chief's portrayal in this book targeting mountaintop removal mining.

The Oregonian refers to Blankenship as Massey's "heavy-handed chairman," and also mentions both the recent DEP settlement and the unearthed photos showing him lounging in Monte Carlo with Chief Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard.

The Washington Post review goes much farther:

The story's villain, meanwhile, seems to have arrived straight from Central Casting, Black Hat Division. Don Blankenship, Massey's CEO, comes off as the coal industry's answer to Attila the Hun, ruthlessly breaking unions, abusing employees and pursuing profitability with no regard for fair play or the safety of small children. Blankenship, according to Shnayerson, has a "soft, doughy face with watery eyes, a meager mustache, and a weak chin." Oh, and don't overlook his lizardlike tongue that darts in and out as he speaks, "as if he were on a quite unconscious surveillance for tasty gnats."
(In her review, Maslin writes that Carl Trudeau, the corporate CEO who seeks to buy a state Supreme Court seat, is described by Grisham as "a hothead with a massive ego who hated to lose.")

Amid such unflattering press, "Blankenship has netted about $7.79 million exercising stock options and stock appreciation rights," The Associated Press reports.