22 February 2008

Quote of the Day

"I will teach the textbook and only the textbook... I'm not doing all the paperwork. 21st Century Learning is a crock."

-- Nitro High teacher Steve Shamblin, responding to a new Kanawha County school board policy spurred by complaints over his assigning of Pat Conroy novels in class, as reported by The Charleston Gazette.

Revisiting The Prince of Tides

Responding to last year's uproar over assigning Pat Conroy novels in Kanawha County schools, the ed board there has "unanimously agreed to warn parents about materials they might not favor," The Charleston Gazette reports.

The article explains that "textbooks are not affected," but that "teachers will have to flag books, articles, magazines and other materials used to supplement a student's learning if they feature sexual content, violence or profane language."

The policy was proposed "after two Pat Conroy novels, 'The Prince of Tides' and 'Beach Music,' were suspended at Nitro High School last fall after parents complained," the article said.

The complaints prompted a letter to the editor from Conroy. A board-appointed panel later approved the use of both books, but the teacher who had assigned them told The Gazette on Thursday that "his students will miss out and he'll defer AP English to a colleague."

Parents who had spoken out against the novels' content support the new policy, which offers them alternatives to any flagged material they object to, the article said. But the policy falls short of a book rating system that some of them had advocated, The Gazette reports.

"We need to find a way to quit chastising parents that want to be involved," Board member Bill Raglin, who proposed the policy, was quoted as saying.

Session Shorts, Day 45 - Updated

ATVs (Update): The full Senate has received a bill endorsed Friday by its Finance Committee "that would ban all-terrain vehicles from paved roads ," and "give county and municipal authorities wide leeway in further regulating the use of the vehicles," The Associated Press reports.

The Senate Finance Committee has endorsed a version of Gov. Joe Manchin's proposed $50 million (corrected) research endowment for West Virginia and Marshall universities. MetroNews and the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington have articles.

The Register-Herald of Beckley reports that "for reasons not supplied, the House again Thursday stalled movement of a proposal to turn hand-held cell phone usage in traffic into a crime in West Virginia."

SPECIAL EDUCATION (Update): The Charleston Daily Mail finds that both "e
ducators and parents seem pleased with two bills aimed at decreasing the number of times a special needs aide can transfer."

TAXES, Part I (Update): County officials and teacher groups tell the Daily Mail that a pending proposal targeting personal property taxes threaten to cost counties and cities "a sizeable chunk of their tax base." Supporters of the measure counter that it would require voters to amend the constitution, and only "to give lawmakers flexibility to make changes to the personal property system."

TAXES, Part II (Update): The Senate passed two of Manchin's tax proposals Friday, AP reports. One would drastically cut the property tax rate for eligible commercial and corporate aircraft. The other would allow week-long sales tax holidays for Energy Star-rated products. Manchin had left the proposal open-ended; the Senate amended that bill to limit it to the next three years.

The House has passed its version of Manchin's bid to allow voluntary transfers between the state's teacher retirement programs. As AP reports, the bill would require $78 million in state funds. The Charleston Gazette has the story, as does The Register-Herald. MetroNews has both a report and audio from Thursday's House floor debate.

W.Va. Contributions Presaged Obama's Rise

The Associated Press reports that "before his impressive string of primary and caucus victories, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama spent January attracting more campaign cash in West Virginia than any other White House hopeful."

AP also notes that while outraising Hillary Clinton 3-to-1 in West Virginia last month "Obama has yet to include the state in his campaign travels. He has also spent no money in the state."

Benjamin Staying on Massey Case

Supreme Court Justice Brent Benjamin has rejected the latest request that he recuse himself from a pending appeal involving Massey Energy Co.

As The Associated Press reports, Benjamin refers to his previous refusals and also took a swipe at lawyers for Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel Corp. and Mountain State Carbon LLC, saying they had included "inaccuracies and innuendo" in the latest request.

Those lawyers argued that Benjamin had failed to address the argument that he faced the appearance of impropriety over the estimated $3.5 million spent by Massey's Don Blankenship to aid his successful 2004 election campaign.

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

21 February 2008

Blankenship to Skip 2008 Races

Following through on an earlier ultimatum, Massey Energy Co. chief Don Blankenship tells The Charleston Daily Mail "he'll have no major involvement in this year's state Supreme Court and statehouse elections."

Blankenship has previously estimated spending $7.5 million on West Virginia political efforts -- $3.5 million on his much-scrutinized 2004 Supreme Court campaign, and about $4 million since then.

A good deal of the latter amount bankrolled his 2006 attempt to deliver a GOP majority in the House of Delegates. " The effort backfired, with Democrats increasing their majority to 72 seats in the House," the article noted.

"Blankenship got some backlash from state Republican Party leaders, who said his advisers had failed to realize that many voters would be angered by his involvement," the Daily Mail reported. "Blankenship shrugged off the criticism."

The Monaco photos showing him with Supreme Court Chief Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard have kept him in the news, as has a #1 best-selling novel that apparently caricatures him and a non-fiction book on the coal industry that is similarly unflattering.

Legislature 2008: Day 44

ATTORNEY GENERAL: The Charleston Daily Mail reports on legislation "that would put the brakes on any agencies or elected officials other than the Legislature spending state money," noting that "the bill comes amid a growing feud between some lawmakers and Attorney General Darrell McGraw."

CAPTIVE AUDIENCE: The House Chamber hosted a public hearing Wednesday on the "captive audience" bill, described by The Register-Herald of Beckley as "one that blocks employers from holding mandatory worker meetings to discuss politics and religion." MetroNews also covered the hearing.

GAS DRILLING: The Associated Press reports that "
Property owners who allow natural gas operators on their land are hoping lawmakers pass a 'Bill of Rights' for them this session," but that "Industry officials are questioning the need for the bill."

LIQUOR TAX: The Charleston Gazette touches on one measure that would add a nickel to the cost of booze, with the resulting revenue creating the "West Virginia Addictions Treatment and Recovery Fund."

MINING: Public Broadcasting is declaring the demise one of Gov. Joe Manchin's agenda items, following action by a Senate committee.

PETS: Eastern Panhandle lawmakers have raised concerns about animal hoarding in West Virginia. The Journal of Martinsburg reports on their proposals to "require anyone with more than 20 dogs or cats to obtain a kennel license," and to "give county commissions the ability to enact ordinances to limit the number of animals a person can have."

STREAMS: The Senate Finance Committee has settled on 108 streams for the oft- and hotly debated proposed list of waterways to be afforded "Tier 2.5" protections. The Gazette has details.

Packing Heat in the Mountain State

The Associated Press explores a pending bill that would restrict access to the state's rosters of concealed weapon permit holders.

Among other factors, "
supporters object to newspapers publishing lists of permit holders, a relatively common practice in West Virginia," AP's Tom Breen found.

But Breen also hears from "advocates for gun control and open government," who "contend the permits should remain a matter of public record."

Domestic violence has become an issue within the debate. Amid a series of domestic-related murder-suicides, "both sides use victims of domestic violence to bolster their positions," Breen reports.

The issue is not restricted to West Virginia, Breen found. "This month, after the Glens Falls Post-Star in New York submitted a request under the Freedom of Information Law for the names of permit holders in three counties, gun owners and their supporters raised objections even before a story was written," he wrote. "In response to the newspaper's request, a New York gun club posted the names, addresses and telephone numbers of editors and reporters at the paper on its Web site."

Breen's article notes that the bill was removed from the House's Thursday schedule, where it was slated for a vote on passage. The Charleston Gazette also reports on that development, while also polling Kanawha and Putnam county lawmakers on the bill.

20 February 2008

Session Shorts, Day 43

ABORTION: Wednesday is Pro-Life Day at the Legislature, with a rally planned by West Virginians for Life. The Herald-Dispatch offers details.

CASTLE DOCTRINE: The Senate has sent the House a bill that says that would allow homeowners to use deadly force against intruders. The Register-Herald and MetroNews report.

EYESORES: The Huntington newspaper also focuses on the progress of legislation "aimed at giving West Virginia cities more power to demolish dilapidated structures."

METHADONE CLINICS: Some lawmakers feel snookered into letting officials from a national network of methadone clinics address two committees in the House chamber last week. The Associated Press has the details.

TAXES: With senators debating over an immediate vs. gradual repeal of the business franchise tax, The Charleston Gazette and the Beckley paper report on efforts at a compromise to ensure that something passes during the session.

AP reports on the full Senate getting a tax holiday measure from its Finance Committee. The panel endorsed Gov. Joe Manchin's bill to exempt Energy Star-rated products from the 6 percent sales tax the first week of each September.

TOLL ROADS: The Herald-Mail of Hagerstown hears from Eastern Panhandle lawmakers about Manchin's "idea that W.Va. 9, U.S. 340 and U.S. 522 could be converted to toll highways to help pay for road improvements." The lawmakers are unenthusiastic -- "I think it's lousy," Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, told the paper -- and a Manchin spokeswoman "cautioned that there is no plan to put tolls on Eastern Panhandle highways and emphasized that any such proposal would be presented to the local community to gauge reaction."

The Register-Herald, meanwhile, highlights a House-adopted resolution that would name the West Virginia Turnpike after former Gov. Okey L. Patteson.

Legislature 2008: Streams

West Virginia continues to struggle to compile a list of waterways that merit a degree of protection.

At The Associated Press' Tom Breen reports, "in the midst of what has become an annual fight over how many streams warrant the protective status known as 'Tier 2.5,' lawmakers are concerned that if West Virginia doesn't act soon, the federal government will."

The fight is framed by a compromise that departs from federal guidelines. As Breen explains:

Initially, there were three (water quality) classifications, or tiers, with the first tier allowing the most pollution and the third being the most stringent about rejecting pollution... Lengthy debate in 2001 produced a compromise classification between the second and third tiers, with the state Department of Environmental Protection initially proposing some 444 streams be given the Tier 2.5 designation.
Lawmakers now spar over the length of the list.

"Last year, the Legislature settled on a list of 309, but that bill failed," AP reports. "This year the DEP returned with a slimmed-down list of 156 streams, but an interim committee bumped the number back up to 309. Landowners and industry groups say they to see the list reduced to the 38 streams that drew no public objections for Tier 2.5 classification."

The Charleston Gazette also reports on Tuesday's Senate debate on the topic.

WVU Prof Faces Contempt Cite Over Anthrax Reporting

Toni Lacy holds the Shott Chair of Journalism at West Virginia University's J-School. A former reporter for The Associated Press, she helped cover the still-unsolved anthrax attacks that killed five people and injured 17 following 9/11.

Amid that coverage, Army lab scientist Steven Hatfil was identified as a "person of interest" in the case. As AP reports, "he is suing the Justice Department, accusing the agency of violating the federal Privacy Act by giving reporters information about the FBI's investigation of him."

To support his case, Hatfil has sought information from several journalists who covered the story. Locy and a second former reporter have refused the judge's earlier order "to reveal all their sources," AP reports.

U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton now says he may hold Locy in contempt. "Walton indicated he would impose a fine until she divulged her sources, but that he would take a few more days to decide whether to postpone the penalty as she pursues an appeal," the AP article said.

""I don't like to have to hold anyone in contempt,'' AP quotes the judge as saying, adding that "when it comes to cases where a person says his reputation was destroyed because of stories published about him," Walton said "the media has to be responsible."

The Charleston Gazette hears from Locy's colleagues at WVU's Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism.

19 February 2008

Legislature Hits Key Session Deadline - Updated

Monday marked the last day for delegates and senators to introduce most kinds of bills, and they made the most of the deadline. Lawmakers increased the session's tally by 212 for a total of 2,112 bills.

Seventy-five bills have passed at least one chamber, while six have been sent to the governor so far.

And despite the holiday, legislators kept busy on a number of issues:

BROADBAND: Gov. Joe Manchin issued three more proposals from his legislative agenda Monday, including one to aid his goal of statewide high-speed Internet access by 2010. As The Associated Press reports, his bill would carve out funding options for projects that apply to extend access to under- or unserved areas. A council headed by the governor would approve these projects.

CASTLE DOCTRINE: The deadline saw an additional measure introduced that "that extends civil immunity to property owners who wound or kill intruders," The Register-Herald reports, adding that another bill on the topic "is up for a vote today in the Senate."

The House Judiciary committee endorsed a measure on Monday that would limit access to information about concealed weapons permits to select groups, including the permit holder in question, parents or guardians, a lawyer or executor of a will and law enforcement agencies," AP reports.

DRIVING IS A PRIVILEGE, PART I: House Judiciary also advanced a bill that would "
would limit cell phone use to hands-free devices," AP reports, and "talking or texting on a cell phone while driving would become a misdemeanor carrying a $25 fee."

DRIVING IS A PRIVILEGE, PART II: Another bill endorsed by House Judiciary would exempt doctors from liability when they report patients unsafe to drive. As AP reports, "For years, doctors have been telling the Division of Motor Vehicles about patients with medical conditions that make them unsafe drivers," and the bill would protect them "as long as they first advise patients they shouldn't be driving."

GAMBLING (update): The House Government Organization Committee has endorsed a bill that would give oversight of the Problem Gamblers Help Network to the Department of Health and Human Resources, and remove the state Lottery's logo from the program's materials. The Charleston Daily Mail offers details.

HUNTING 101: AP continues its coverage of legislation creating hunting and gun safety classes in the public schools, with news of its passage by the Senate. The Beckley newspaper has a report as well.

OXYCONTIN: Another of the governor's Monday bills would allow the State Police to spend $44 million, earned for helping a federal probe of Purdue Pharma, on law enforcement efforts over the next two years. AP reports.

RACIAL PROFILING (update): With the
Racial Profiling Data Collection Act up for renewal, the Daily Mail reports on a survey of traffic stops that "shows black and Hispanic motorists are more often stopped than white motorists. But the survey also shows that illegal items were found more often during searches of vehicles driven by whites, Asians and other races."

STONEWALL RESORT: AP reports on a proposal to boost the financially struggling public-private development by "
allowing private investors to build and retain the right to use condos, townhouses and the like" there.

TAXES, PART I: Senate Republicans want an immediate repeal of the business franchise tax, and plan to pursue that goal by amending a pending bill that proposes to erase it gradually over seven years, The Charleston Gazette reports.

TAXES, PART II: The Senate Finance Committee has advanced Manchin's proposal to slash property taxes on commercial and corporate aircraft, after hearing from county airport officials who support the bill. AP has details.

State Workers Vent at Capitol Rally

Scores of public employees used Monday's holiday to gather for a rally at the Capitol.

"Collective bargaining absent a right-to-strike provision was the key objective," The Register-Herald reports. The Charleston Gazette noted that "many were state Division of Highways workers who believe recent state equipment auctions are a sign the Manchin administration is moving to privatize road upkeep."

MetroNews opened with the workers' calls for a fair wage. The Associated Press focused both on the fears raised by Highways workers and allegations "concerning job vacancies at the Department of Environmental Protection."

"A union for state workers alleges DEP has failed to collect hefty fines from polluters," and "is calling for a legislative audit," AP reported.

Turnpike Trouble

Interest rates are threatening to rise on bonds sold by the West Virginia Turnpike's parent agency for project revenue.

As The Register-Herald of Beckley and The Charleston Gazette report, the company that insures this bonds has been hit hard by the ongoing subprime mortgage mess.

As a result, Moody's Investor Service has significantly downgraded the "insurance financial strength" ratings of
Financial Guaranty Insurance Company and its related companies.

These ratings remain on review for possible downgrade, reflecting continuing uncertainty about the firm's strategic and capital plans," the Wall Street rating agency said in a release. "An unfavorable outcome in those areas could lead to a lower financial strength rating."

"Without the guarantee of an AAA rating, interest rates that Parkways has to pay to the holders of about $100 million in outstanding bonds will go up - potentially creating a funding crisis for the authority," The Gazette reported following Monday's meeting of the Parkways, Economic Development and Tourism Authority.

Election 2008: Supreme Court

Four of the five candidate for 2008's two Supreme Court seats attended a two-hour forum Monday sponsored by the Independent Insurance Agents of West Virginia in Charleston.

MetroNews was also in on the event, with Talkline broadcasting it. Host/moderator Hoppy Kercheval asked the candidates about the ongoing recusal scandal, recent legislation affecting insurance and medical malpractice lawsuits, the selection process for the judiciary, and abortion among other topics.

The Charleston Gazette opened its coverage with the candidate's views on West Virginia as a "judicial hellhole."

The Associated Press focused on the recusal issue. The candidates include Chief Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard, whose decision to meet up with Massey Energy head Don Blankenship in Monaco while the company had appeals pending has grabbed national headlines and overshadowed the court.

At the forum, Maynard suggested the state consider a review mechanism when its judicial officers are targeted by recusal requests.

MetroNews also offers extensive audio clips from the forum.

18 February 2008

Legislature 2008: Teacher Pensions

Seeking to get to the bottom of their paltry returns, The Associated Press reports that "teachers in West Virginia's 401(k)-style retirement plan invested too heavily in an option ill-suited for the long term, leaving the typical account with less than $34,000."

AP charted the rate of return for the Teachers Defined Contribution program and its investment options. The most popular has been a fixed annuity from VALIC that guarantees a minimum 4.5 percent yield.

"Program statistics suggest that the VALIC option's annual return averaged 5.75 percent since TDC began in 1991," AP reports. "That proved a boon during 2002's Wall Street downturn, when other TDC options suffered losses as great as 18.3 percent. But the annuity's return has generally lagged behind that of most of the plan's other options."

"In some years, that's a great thing to be in, with its fixed rate," state retirement board Director Anne Lambright told AP. "It's a safe investment, but it's not necessarily a safe one to have for a 30-something-year-old."

VALIC is now AIG Retirement, which stands by its product, spokesman John Pluhowski told AP. "We were employed by [the retirement board] in the early 1990s to enroll educators into the state's retirement plan," Pluhowski said. "Our services did not include financial planning or the offering of investment advice."

The Price of Economic Stimulus

West Virginia's reliance on federal tax policy to operate its own system may end up costing it nearly $44 million thanks to the recently approved stimulus package, The Associated Press reports.

AP's Tom Breen focuses on a component of the legislation will allow businesses "to deduct up to 50 percent of the cost of new equipment from their taxes in 2008, a considerable savings."

As Breen explains, "When the federal code changes, the state tax changes with them, so businesses in West Virginia will get an additional tax break if the state follows past practice and amends its laws."

The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy "wants the Legislature to refrain from ‘‘coupling’’ state tax laws to the federal changes, to preserve that revenue," the article said.

But state officials project that West Virginia could offset the losses -- if the stimulus package's June tax rebates and other factors help increase revenues sufficiently by 2009.

The West Virginia think tank and its national counterpart had previously warned of higher losses from the federal legislation.

Supreme Court Still Dogged by Recusal Questions

After repeatedly rebuffing demands from Massey Energy Co., Justice Larry Starcher agreed Friday to recuse himself from one of its pending appeals.

But as The Associated Press reports, Starcher urged fellow Justice Brent Benjamin to do the same. "Starcher had cited the multimillion-dollar campaign bankrolled by Don Blankenship, Massey’s president, chairman and chief executive, to help Benjamin get elected in 2004," the article said.

(Massey targeted Starcher "over his public comments critical of Massey, Blankenship and his 2004 campaign," AP explains. "Among other remarks, Starcher has called Blankenship a 'clown' and said, 'Massey has not been good corporate citizen.'")

So far, Benjamin's only reaction has been to appoint a circuit judge to replace Starcher.

The pending appeal seeks to re-reverse the $76.3 million judgment won by Harman Mining Co. and its president, Hugh Caperton. The Supreme Court had vacated the underlying verdict in November - then erased that decision and agreed to rehear the case after the now-infamous photos surfaced showing Blankenship in sunny Monte Carlo with Chief Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard.

The Monaco photos preceded Maynard's departure from the Harman case and two other Massey-related appeals. Starcher's Friday statement did not cover this other statements. The plaintiffs in one of them requested Benjamin's disqualification last week.

Defending a $240 million judgment they've won against Massey, Wheeling-Pittsburgh Steel and Mountain State Carbon refer to The Appeal, the #1 best-seller by John Grisham apparently inspired by West Virginia's 2004 Supreme Court race.

17 February 2008

Belated Quote of the Week

"I don't believe that Bible-believing Christians should take part in the mainstreaming of Mormonism."

-- Brian Bigelow, a delegate at the Feb. 5 state GOP convention, to USA Today following the victory of Mike Huckabee over Mitt Romney there.

Bigelow had been an at-large delegate for Fayette County, initially committed to former New York Mayor (and Roman Catholic) Rudy Giuliani.