08 March 2008

Session Shorts, Day 60

COMMUNITY COLLEGES: Public Broadcasting and the Parkersburg News report on the bill that would split the state's community and technical schools from their four-year counterparts. The latter paper focuses on the fate of its regional campus of West Virginia University in the bill, while the Herald-Dispatch notes a relevant funding measure.

MUNICIPAL PENSIONS: The Huntington paper is also among those observing the death of the proposed relief measure for cities and towns struggling with their police and fire pension funds. MetroNews talks to that city's mayor about the bill's demise, with audio.

SCHOOL AID FORMULA: The Times West Virginian of Fairmont reports on a pending school funding bill, and its projected impact on Marion County.

TEACHER PENSIONS: The Charleston Gazette and MetroNews (with audio) among those tracking the impasse over the proposed voluntary merger of West Virginia's two teacher retirement programs.

TOLL ROADS: The Journal of Martinsburg explores that aspect of legislation that would allow public-private partnerships for road building projects.

DHHR: The Register-Herald of Beckley offers separate stories on lawmakers who criticized the way state programs are spending funding for disabled residents, and on the officials' response.

Legislature 2008: Final Day

The Associated Press sets the stage for Day 60, reporting that "lawmakers appeared ready to close out this year’s session by sending Gov. Joe Manchin his proposals on business tax cuts and pay raises, but were balking at providing relief for teacher and municipal police and fire pension programs."

AP also provides a glance of some of the higher-profile bills of the session.

The House and Senate have sent Manchin 131 bills so far. The Legislature passed 273 bills last year, including 128 on the final day.

Friday's focus proved as much on bills that appeared doomed as on those expected to reach the governor's desk.

As cited by AP, Delegate Cliff Moore, D-McDowell, sought to shame his House colleagues for failing to take up a bill to add sexual orientation to the state's Human Rights and Fair Housing acts.

‘‘I want you all to think about what we didn’t do,’’ AP quoted Moore as saying. ‘‘We didn’t do the right thing.’’

The Charleston Gazette
also noted Moore's floor speech, as did The Register-Herald. The Beckley paper had also previously reported comments from those on the other side of the debate.

Delegate Mel Kessler, D-Raleigh County and a candidate for governor, vented to The Register-Herald after being called out of order during a House Judiciary Committee meeting on the bill.

“I’m not going to discriminate against gays. I’m not going to line any of them up and shoot them," he told that paper. "I should have the right to exercise my religious beliefs, and my religious beliefs are that the Bible says it’s an abomination.”

Delegate Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell, echoed Kessler's view, and "
also took exception to the anti-age discrimination element of the bill," the Register-Herald reported.

“What if you have student housing, an apartment complex with young students, and you’ve got someone who’s 40 years old who likes to hang out with kids,” she told the paper.

Eventually, she said, if the trend continues, no one could discriminate against anyone for any reason," the newspaper reported.

U.S. Ed Secretary Visits W.Va.

The Associated Press' Tom Breen was on hand for Friday's stop by U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings at the Capitol.

"Spellings is visiting states to promote the No Child Left Behind Act, which is before Congress for reauthorization," AP reports. "But she’s also listening to criticism of the sweeping program in hopes of making it better."

MetroNews also has a story, noting that "West Virginia is the 15th state Spellings has visited this year to see first hand the successes and problems of No Child Left Behind."

07 March 2008

Session Shorts, Day 59

ATVs: The Associated Press explores the demise of this year's proposed paved road ban for all-terrain vehicles.

BROADBAND: The Journal of Martinsburg highlights the pending bill that aims to extend high-speed Internet access statewide.

COMMUNITY COLLEGES: "A bill now before the Senate would make all of the state's 10 community-technical colleges independent entities, which supporters say would help them focus on the crucial task of workforce training," AP's Tom Breen reports.

MUNICIPAL PENSIONS: Supporters of the relief proposal sought to address the concerns of volunteer firefighters, but as AP reports, rural lawmakers are balking at a bailout. The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington also reports, as does The Charleston Gazette.

REAL ID: A proposed protest of federal policy regarding a national identity card has died in the House, The Register-Herald of Beckley reports.

SEXUAL ORIENTATION: Public Broadcasting delves into the tumult and cross-accusations that have apparently stranded a bill to add orientation to the state Human Rights and Fair Housing acts. MetroNews offers a similar assessment.

STREAMS: The bill to scrap the "Tier 2.5" list for stream protections is heading to the governor, and AP has details.

TEACHER PAY: The Senate Finance Committee has proposed $1,800 raises to teachers, as an alternative to Gov. Joe Manchin's request of 3% salary hikes, MetroNews reports.

Quote of the Day

“He has to grow up, but he’s got a good heart."

-- Gov. Joe Manchin, to The Rothenberg Polical Report about state Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley, and his abrupt departure from the 2nd Congressional District race.

The report said "privately, Unger blamed (Manchin) for thwarting his fundraising," and that "Rumors circulated in Washington and on the Internet that Manchin was working to force Unger out of the race because of some sort of nonaggression pact with (incumbent Rep. Shelley Moore) Capito." Manchin's response: “Absolutely the furthest thing from the truth,” adding of Unger, “he was hesitant from day one. You have to be totally committed to these things.”

W.Va.'s Democratic "Super" Delegates

National attention has turned to the remaining Democratic primaries, including West Virginia's on May 13. The state party has 39 delegates to its national convention, including 28 who will be picked in that election.

The rest are the ballyhooed "superdelegates," granted their status through elected or party office.

Three of them have expressed support for Hillary Clinton. But it's the two that have come out for Barack Obama that have made headlines.

U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., endorsed Obama last week. Rockefeller's post as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee helped the announcement attract national headlines.

But it also attracted a reaction from Bill Clinton. The former president chided Rockefeller over his decision on MetroNews' Talkline earlier this week. (Hoppy Kercheval landed a "good get," as Stephen Colbert might say.)

U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-3rd, now tells The Associated Press that he's behind Obama as well. Rahall told AP's Tom Breen that "he privately pledged his support to the Illinois senator days ago."

The Democratic National Convention is set for Aug. 25 in Denver.

Update: MetroNews reports on Rahall's endorsement and hears from state Democratic Party Chairman Nick Casey about the superdelegate process. The Charleston Daily Mail talks to Rockefeller about his choice.

06 March 2008

Session Shorts, Day 58

BUDGET: The 2008-2009 state budget began to take shape Wednesday when the House Finance Committee amended Gov. Joe Manchin's spending recommendations. As The Associated Press notes, lawmaker expect to meet in extended session next weeks to craft a final version.

CAPTIVE AUDIENCE: The measure championed by labor groups and decried by employers is dead this session, Senate Judiciary Chairman Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, tells The Register-Herald of Beckley.

HORSE PARK? The House has refused to accept a Senate amendment that would require the West Virginia Turnpike's parent agency to provide $100,000 for an equestrian park proposed in Mercer County. The Register-Herald has the details.

HUNTING ED: "West Virginia may soon start teaching hunting in its classrooms, but schools would not be required to offer such coursework under House changes to pending legislation," AP reports.

JUDGES: AP reports that the House is poised to approve a Senate-passed bill that would allow three more circuit judges, giving one each to Mercer County, Wayne County and the circuit serving Hampshire, Hardy and Pendleton counties. Manchin is expected to sign the measure.

MUNICIPAL PENSIONS: A House Finance subcommittee has been assigned the bill sought by cities and towns to aid their verkakte police and fire pension funds. Though it meets Thursday, supporters tell MetroNews the move could kill the measure this session. With audio.

SBA: MetroNews highlights the latest funding measure for the School Building Authority, and talks to Executive Director Mark Manchin.

SEXUAL ORIENTATION: After a tense House Judiciary meeting that saw one member called out of order, the committee on Wednesday advanced the hotly debated change to the state's Human Rights and Fair Housing acts. AP has details, as does The Gazette and MetroNews.

STREAMS: The House has tweaked the Senate's attempt to resolve the debate over "Tier 2.5" waterways in West Virginia, sending it back to that chamber Wednesday for final approval. The House debate before the vote included some fireworks, as AP details. The Gazette has a story as well.

THIRD HOUSE: The Cultural Center hosted the 19th annual assemblage of skits and songs meant to poke fun at West Virginia's political class. The Marshall University Parthenon has a review, while The Gazette offers a photo.

Quote of the Day

“For us to pay? Oh, gosh.”

-- West Virginia Turnpike Manager Greg Barr, to The Register-Herald of Beckley after learning that the Senate had amended a bill so it would require the turnpike's parent agency to provide $100,000 annually for a proposed
Mercer County horse park.

MonacoGate Remains Issue in Supreme Court Race

West Virginia University law professor and Supreme Court candidate Bob Bastress has renewed calls for an independent probe into the relationship between his fellow candidate and Chief Justice Elliott "Spike" Maynard and Massey Energy Co.'s Don Blankenship.

As The Associated Press reports, the move stems from the now-infamous 2006 vacation photos showing the two men together in Monaco.

Bastress "cited several in a series of legal ethics experts from law schools across the country who decried the appearance of impropriety reflected in the photos," AP reports.

“The case is now so notorious, an independent investigation is needed,” Bastress told AP and others at a Capitol press conference. “It’s made West Virginia the object of scorn in some circles.”

The Charleston Gazette and MetroNews also have reports.

Maynard, meanwhile, tells The Intelligencer of Wheeling that he favors the public financing of elections and nonpartisan races for the state's judiciary.

Update: Supreme Court Administrator Steve Canterbury responds to Bastress to AP. Public Broadcasting offers Bastress' letter and audio in its report.

05 March 2008

Session Shorts, Day 57

CELL PHONES & DRIVING: Amending a bill that would ban (some) drivers from talking or texting by cell, "Senate Transportation Committee members voted Tuesday to remove a provision that would have exempted federal, state, county or municipal government vehicles," The Charleston Gazette reports. The Register-Herald of Beckley also has a story, while MetroNews has audio.

Supporters of a House-passed bill proposing licensing requirements for elevator workers include both major players in that industry and their employees. One elevator firm has led the charge against the bill. As The Associated Press reports, that firm has also hired a West Virginia contractor with a troubled track record with the state.

HUNTING ED: A House Education subcommittee has endorsed a Senate-passed bill that aims to promote hunting and gun safety in public schools, but after making such coursework optional instead of mandatory, The Register-Herald reports.

: The Journal of Martinsburg tracks the Senate progress of a House-passed bill that would allow residents with poor vision "to drive with the aid of specially designed bioptic lenses." The Register-Herald also reports.

MUNICIPAL PENSIONS: Volunteer firefighters have an ally in Gov. Joe Manchin as they oppose a pending bill aimed at helping pension funds for police and paid firefighters . The governor told MetroNews that he agrees with them that they should be receiving revenue from the insurance policy surcharge that the bill earmarks for the municipal pensions.

SEXUAL ORIENTATION: The House Chamber hosted a public hearing Tuesday that featured sharply divided speakers on the question of "a Senate-passed bill that would add sexual orientation to the classes protected under the state’s Human Rights and Fair Housing acts," AP reports. MetroNews also covered the hearing, and has audio.

STREAMS: The Gazette delves into a Tuesday debate on the House floor which culminated in the adoption of a tweak by its Judiciary Committee of the Senate-passed bill "that did away with the Tier 2.5 level of protection for streams."

TEACHER PENSIONS: The Senate passed its version of Manchin's pension merger proposal Tuesday, 31-2. A House-Senate conference committee must now seek a compromise from among the differing versions, AP reports. AP also caught the Senate's floor debate, as did MetroNews (with audio), The Gazette, and the Beckley newspaper.

Legislature 2008: Taxes

By sizable margins, lawmakers have been advancing an array of tax cuts this session that would primarily benefit business. They include drops in corporate net income and inventory property taxes, and a phaseout of the business franchise tax.

But The Associated Press' Tom Breen hears from one group that estimates this legislation "could sap an additional $531 million from state coffers over the next 11 years."

The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy warns "the new measures could force the state to cut services or raise other taxes to make up for the shortfall," Breen reports.

Advocates argue that tax cuts attract new businesses while allowing ones already present to expand, increasing the number of taxpayers and their revenues.

To test that belief, lawmakers may require tax officials to report periodically to the Legislature on the cuts' effects following passage.

Update: The Charleston Gazette also has a story, and a link to the center's report.

Manchin Blows A Tire

Yeager Airport's main runway was closed for about an hour over the weekend after a 1981 single-engine Piper Saratoga flown by Gov. Joe Manchin suffered a flat tire upon landing, the Charleston Daily Mail reports.

"There were absolutely no injuries, it was just a simple flat tire," Manchin spokeswoman Lara Ramsburg told the newspaper. "He just wishes that the flat was one of the type that would have allowed the plane to continue off under its own power so as not to inconvenience anyone."

Ramsburg also said that she believed the Sunday flight "was part of his requirement to keep his flight hours up to date and not part of a specific trip."

W.Va. Slips A Spot in Latest Congressional "Power" Rankings

West Virginia has the third most-potent congressional delegation in the country, according to the latest "Power Rankings" by Congress.org that puts it behind North Dakota and Nevada.

But only the Flickertail State had outranked West Virginia in the 2007 edition of the survey, which seeks to measure "many of those factors that both the public and official Washington have come to recognize as the levers and characteristics of power."

Each member of the delegation received a higher score than last year, but in some cases were displaced by colleagues who saw greater improvement between surveys:

  • Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., fell from 3rd to 12th. His former spot is now held by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill. But Byrd also "received positive 'Sizzle' points because he or she has power beyond ordinary measurable factors."
  • Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., fell from 13th to 21st.
  • Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, rose from 64th to 41st. While he "has good committee assignments that reflect greater influence or longer tenure," he also "received negative 'Fizzle' points due to controversy/scandal."
  • Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, leaped from 421st to 225th. Her scored nearly tripled since 2007, when the GOP ceded control of the House. She also ranked 54th in her party.
  • Rep. Nick Rahall, D-3rd, improved slightly from 22nd to 20th. West Virginia's top-ranking House member, he also placed 18th among that chamber's Democrats.
The Charleston Daily Mail has a story on the rankings. Congress.org also offers a more thorough explanation of the ranking methodology.

04 March 2008

W.Va. Government Gets a C+ from Pew

But the national average is a B- in the latest Grading the States report from the Pew Charitable Trust's Government Performance Project.

The state's government earned its best grade, a B, in the money category. It reflects "how states manage fiscal resources, including budgeting, forecasting, accounting and financial reporting, procurement, contracting, investments, and debt."

West Virginia's worst grade was a C- for infrastructure. That category gauges how states "maintain, improve and plan for future physical infrastructure needs, including roads, bridges and buildings."

The report also graded states for what they are doing "to recruit and retain strong professionals and offering development and recognition for top-level service," and to "apply data and technology to measure the effectiveness of services, make decisions and communicate with the public." West Virginia earned Cs in the people and information categories.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Joe Manchin tells The Associated Press that "the areas of concern mentioned in the study are areas that we have previously identified as challenges and are working hard on."

Session Shorts, Day 56

ATVs: A leading advocate of banning the vehicles from paved roads expresses concerns to The Register-Herald of Beckley about the House relegating the pending bill to a subcommittee with five days left in the session.

The Register-Herald also reports that the Senate is proceeding with the House-passed, exception-packed measure that would ban drivers from wielding cell phones while driving.

Foes outnumbered supporters among speakers 6-to-1 at a public hearing for a bill that would reduce tipping fees at state landfills. Amid arguments to the contrary, opponents say the Senate-passed measure actually benefits a McDowell County landfill at the expense of solid waste authority budgets statewide. AP, MetroNews (with audio), The Gazette and The Journal of Martinsburg report.

Demanding a piece of the action, dozens of volunteer firefighters showed up at the House Chamber on Monday to oppose the pending bill that offers insurance surcharge revenues and other provisions to aid badly funded local police and fire pension plans. AP has details along with the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington, MetroNews (audio here) and The Gazette.

TAX CUTS I: Several groups, including unions and the state Council of Churches has come out against the array of business-related tax cuts on tap for passage this session. They warn MetroNews of a $121 million impact on state agencies and services. With audio.

TAX CUTS II: As for consumer taxes, seniors tell The Journal they want more relief from property taxes.

MetroNews gives Gov. Joe Manchin's recruiting bonus bill for teachers little chance of passage, after talking to Senate Education Chairman Bob Plymale, D-Wayne.

I: The Senate Finance Committee has embraced the version of the "bailout" merger proposal for Teacher Defined Contribution system enrollees advanced by that chamber's Pensions Committee. The Gazette and The Register-Herald highlight the differences between the Senate and House versions.

TEACHER PENSIONS II: Manchin tells Public Broadcasting that the latter version does not leave enough of the burden on transferring enrollees. With audio.

ZONING: A Senate committee has amended and advanced a House-passed bill that aims to revise how zoning ordinances can be enacted and amended in West Virginia, The Journal reports.

03 March 2008

Legislature 2008: Final Week

Well, not counting the additional week lawmakers will spend completing next year's budget. Or any special session Gov. Joe Manchin may call to remedy bills he's had to veto because of technical errors.

But pretty much everything else must pass by midnight Saturday. Following up on recent myth-testing by legislative services, The Associated Press weighs the notion that not much is proposed or accomplished by lawmakers in an election year.

AP touches on the legislative pay raise, which was sent to Manchin on Friday. AP was among those covering the bill's final passage.

WSAZ-TV sets the stage for the final week, while also mentioning Wednesday's installment of the Third House.