13 June 2008

They Voted for You: Unemployment

U.S. Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st; Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd; and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, all helped pass the "Emergency Extended Unemployment Compensation Act of 2008" on Thursday.

By 274-137, the House "approved an extra three months of jobless benefits for all unemployed Americans, knowing the plan's chances are slight in the Senate and almost nonexistent at the White House," The Associated Press reports.

"The White House already has threatened to veto the bill, and Senate Democrats have said they won't try and force their Republican colleagues to consider the House legislation," the article said. "The White House and Republicans said a bill targeting unemployment benefits only to states that have high unemployment would be more palatable to them."

Supporters attracted just enough votes to override a threatened presidential veto.

"The Labor Department reported Thursday that the number of people filing new claims for unemployment benefits last week increased by 25,000 from the week before," the article explains. "The unemployment rate in May jumped to 5.5 percent, up from 5 percent in April. It was the biggest one-month gain in 22 years."

The Register-Herald
of Beckley has an article focusing on Rahall's vote.

Election 2008 Roundup

Race and West Virginia

Folks continue to sift through the results of West Virginia's May 13 primary, questioning what role race played in the lopsided victory of Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama.

The Guardian, a British newspaper, sent a reporter to Williamson (among other spots) to tackle the topic. The resulting article quotes such local residents as Johnny Telvor, who says the election of Obama as president means "We'll end up slaves. We'll be made slaves just like they was once slaves."

The article hits several other aspects of the debate, and essentially reaches this conclusion:

The difficult truth is that Appalachia is unusual mostly because many people here are willing to openly talk about what some of their fellow citizens are secretly thinking. In exit polls of the recent primaries in Kentucky and West Virginia, one in five Democrats confessed to pollsters that race was a factor in their voting choice.
To help make that point, it quotes Professor Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University and "expert on racial politics."

"'West Virginia and Kentucky were just more honest than other parts of the country. A lot of other people know it's not socially acceptable to mention that sort of thing," she told the newspaper.

The article is discussed on The Rural Blog, based in Kentucky. The author notes his recent column in the Louisville newspaper, in which he argued that "if Obama asked one of the black mayors of overwhelmingly white towns in Kentucky, 'They might tell him that when folks know you, they're willing to vote for you. When you're a silhouette or a cartoon, they're not even listening.'"

12 June 2008

Quote of the Day

“I predict that the next governor of this state — and it’s not going to be too far down the road — is going to be one of you all.”

-- Gov. Joe Manchin to the annual meeting of Rhododendron Girls State on Wednesday, as reported by The Intelligencer of Wheeling.

Groups Flunk West Virginia's New Approach to Medicaid

"Labor unions, church groups and health care activists" have concluded that "West Virginia's vaunted redesigned Medicaid plan is not working as intended," The Associated Press reports.

AP health care writer Tom Breen explains that "West Virginia was one of the first states to take advantage of a 2006 federal law that allows states to mix and match Medicaid benefits."

The result, dubbed Mountain Health Choices, "makes some benefits contingent upon signing contracts that pledge recipients to, among other things, regularly visit their doctor and take their medication as directed," Breen writes. "If recipients don't sign those contracts, they are enrolled in a health plan with benefits that are scaled back from what they had received under traditional Medicaid."

Among other findings, this coalition argues that "in the three trial counties where the program was first rolled out in February 2007, relatively small numbers of eligible Medicaid recipients are taking part," the article said.

But the Department of Health and Human Resources views "traditional" Medicaid as a failure, and a costly one according to a recent review of state spending.

"We still have some of the worst health statistics in the nation," DHHR Secretary Martha Walker said. "We must make a change if West Virginia is ever to achieve the economic growth we so badly need."

The Charleston Gazette also reported on the coalition's findings, noting its call to suspend the redesign. It notes as well that "Walker's office released 'talking points,' alleging that coalition members 'were satisfied with the status quo,' and 'maintaining the status quo is their job security.'"

They Voted For You: Amtrak

U.S. Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st; Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd; and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, all helped the House pass the "Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act."

The 311-104 vote reflects a veto-proof margin for the "nearly $15 billion Amtrak bill," The Associated Press reports.

The bill "would authorize funding for the national passenger railroad over the next five years," the article said. "Some of the money would go to a program of matching grants to help states set up or expand rail service."

AP also reports that "The White House has threatened a veto, saying the bill doesn't hold Amtrak accountable for its spending. But similar legislation has passed the Senate, also with enough support to override a veto."

The article notes further that "Unlike the Senate version, the House bill includes a requirement for the Department of Transportation to seek proposals from private companies to create a high-speed service that would take travelers from Washington to New York in two hours or less."

Child Gun Deaths in W.Va.

A recent report from the Children's Defense Fund culls federal CDC data to mark a rise in deaths of West Virginia children from gunshot wounds, The Associated Press reports.

Citing the latest available data, the report counted 19 such deaths in 2005, up from a dozen the previous year. In that more recent year, one death was undetermined and the rest were divided between homicides and suicides.

The report also shows:

  • Total West Virginia deaths declined slightly in 2004 when compared to 2003, when there were 14;
  • Just one accidental death during the three-year period, in 2003;
  • Homicides dipped between 2003 and 2004, while suicides increased (by one or two a year) during the time period.
The report does not appear to consider each state's population. Comparing the figures to 2000 Census numbers for the under-20 population, the age group covered by the report, shows that West Virginia ranked 32nd in 2003 for total deaths per 100,000 such residents. That ranking fell to 38th in 2004, but rose to 18th in 2005.

11 June 2008

W.Va. Medicaid Spending Doubles in Decade

West Virginia's share of funding its Medicaid program increased from $335 million in 1996 to $651 million last year, The Associated Press and others report.

The numbers come from a new study by The Center on Budget and Policy, whose backers include labor unions and religious groups.

The study found that while state funding nearly doubled, "Medicaid recipients went from about 350,000 to roughly 390,000," AP reports. "But Medicaid spending has actually dropped as a percentage of overall state spending, accounting for about 10 percent last year, compared with 10.5 percent in 1997."

Center Executive Director Ted Boettner told The Charleston Gazette that "People think Medicaid spending is out of control, and that's not the case."

The Gazette offers other details from the report and the state's Medicaid program:
  • When combined with federal funding, which accounts for 75 percent of total Medicaid dollars, more than $2.2 billion was spent on the health-insurance program in 2007;
  • About two-thirds of West Virginia's total Medicaid budget goes to provide services to the elderly and disabled, according to the study. The remaining money helps children, low-income parents and pregnant women;
  • Medicaid pays for about half of all births in West Virginia;
  • West Virginia also spends more per Medicaid recipient - $6,285 - than any bordering state. By contrast, Kentucky spends $4,964 per enrollee, and Maryland and Ohio spend about $5,800 per Medicaid recipient;
  • Medicaid isn't just a health insurance program. It also pays for long-term care at nursing homes and at beneficiaries' private residences.
"Boettner said West Virginia spends more than surrounding states because it has the highest percentage of Medicaid recipients with disabilities," the newspaper reported. " West Virginia also has the highest percentage of its overall population enrolled in Medicaid among the neighboring states."

State Eyeing Hefty Price for Office Space

West Virginia state government is poised to buy a Charleston office building for more than eight times its appraised value, the Charleston Daily Mail reports.

Kanawha County has valued that Greenbrooke Building at $1.6 million, "based on an income and expense statement supplied earlier this year by Al Summers, the building's owner," the article said. "H. Kim Painter, senior appraiser in the state Department of Administration's Real Estate Division, has appraised the Greenbrooke property at $14.5 million."

The proposed sales price is $13.9 million. Summers has said a private appraised valued the Greenbrooke at $17 million, but county officials say "Laidley Tower (among the tallest buldings in West Virginia) sold for $18.5 million in 2002 and Laidley is 'Class A' office space, while he and Duffield consider the Greenbrooke Building to be 'Class C' space," the newspaper reported.

Update: The Charleston Gazette reported on the proposed purchase earlier, noting that the state's "Economic Development Authority authorized a bond sale worth up to $18 million on May 15" to fund the deal.

A Possible Wrinkle in Teacher Pension Transfer

The Associated Press reports that "A player in West Virginia's 401(k)-style retirement plan for educators may levy an estimated $11 million "surrender charge'' against the state when thousands of plan members transfer into another state-run pension program next month."

"State officials contend the threat comes as VALIC seeks leverage amid allegations blaming its annuities and sales agents for the poor performance of the Teachers' Defined Contribution plan," the article said. "Formerly known as the Variable Annuity Life Insurance Co., VALIC believes its contracts with TDC enrollees allow it to assess penalties if they move too much of their assets out of VALIC-provided annuities."

More than 15,000 TDC accounts will be transferred into the Teachers' Retirement System after July 1. VALIC annuities make up around 30 percent of all TDC accounts, which had a combined market value of $908 million at the end of the last fiscal year.

"I think VALIC sees their ability to level the transfer charges as a bargaining chip going forward,'' Carte Goodwin, general counsel to Gov. Joe Manchin, told AP. "We already know of private lawsuits, but the auditor's office is also looking into possible securities violations dating from the 1990s.''

Semi-Soft Landing for Election Fraud Figure

"Unable to get his state retirement because he was convicted in federal court of conspiring to buy votes, a former Lincoln County assessor has been hired to work as an employee in his old office," The Charleston Gazette reports.

Jerry Allen Weaver "was hired last week to work as a mapper and property assessor for Lincoln County Assessor Tracy Dempsey," the article said. "Lincoln County commissioners unanimously approved the hiring, but one said this week he felt he was misled and did not realize he voted for the convicted felon."

Weaver was among several Lincoln and Logan county residents and officials who conspired to buy votes in Democratic primaries dating back more than a decade. " Weaver pleaded guilty in federal court in 2005 and was sentenced to spend one year in federal prison," the article said.

Update: MetroNews' Talkline spoke to Lincoln County Commissioner Charles Vance, who "says he'll ask the Commission to reconsider the approval given to the hiring." With audio.

Manchin Mixed on Gas Tax Freeze

While he's watching the variable rate to West Virginia's fuel taxes that is adjusted annually, Gov. Joe Manchin appears unlikely to propose or support freezing the main portion of the per-gallon levy, The Register-Herald of Beckley reports.

“The gas tax is not what’s causing this (price) to be over $4,” Manchin spokeswoman Lara Ramsburg told the newspaper. “It’s a national issue that needs to be addressed on the national level, and we keep imploring for that."

The article said that "R
epublican lawmakers are trying to convince Manchin to lessen the tax bite taken by state government in an anticipated special legislative session this month."

It also explains that "
Motorists shell out 32.2 cents in state taxes per gallon, of which 20.5 cents is in the flat rate and the remaining 11.7 cents is based on the 5 percent of the average wholesale fuel prices. "

Update: MetroNews' Talkline hosted oil analyst
Peter Beutel, who says "reducing demand for gasoline by between 5% and 10% would have an impact on the price of gasoline." Beutel also said government subsidies are insulating consumers in other parts of the world from the rising prices. With audio.

Election 2008: President

Gov. Joe Manchin was in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to promote Barack Obama's candidacy as chairman of the Democratic Governors Association.

Manchin and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., flanked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., at the Democratic National Committee as she "dismissed concerns that disappointed Hillary Clinton supporters might turn to John McCain, whose campaign has stepped up efforts to woo them," CNN reported.

The New York Times also noted Manchin's presence at the press event, while The Hill reported that he said "that the 28 Democratic governors have already talked of providing Obama with a blueprint for how he can win in their states."

The Hill also reported:

Manchin told a few reporters after the press conference that a majority of the governors will meet with Obama sometime this month.

He said he expects 20 governors to be in attendance — those who don’t have special legislative sessions in their states — and there are tentative plans to meet “somewhere in the Midwest.”

Manchin said that the 28 states represented by Democratic governors equate to 294 electoral votes, and that eight of the 10 “so-called swing states” have Democratic governors.

(DNC Chairman Howard) Dean and other Democrats present declined to specify which states they’re viewing as swing states this year.

The Associated Press, meanwhile, updates on Obama's search for a running mate but offers no potential names.

10 June 2008

They (He) Voted For You: Fuel Prices

U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., voted for an unsuccessful attempt to end a filibuster over the "Consumer-First Energy Act of 2008."

The motion failed 51-43, as it required at least 60 votes to prevail. U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., was among six members who did not vote on the motion.

"The Democratic energy package would have imposed a tax on any 'unreasonable' profits of the five largest U.S. oil companies and given the federal government more power to address oil market speculation that the bill's supporters argue has added to the crude oil price surge," The Associated Press reports.

"Republicans argued the Democratic proposal focusing on new oil industry taxes is not the answer to the country's energy problems," the article said. "A GOP energy plan, rejected by the Senate last month, calls for opening a coastal strip of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil development and to allow states to opt out of the national moratorium that has been in effect for a quarter century against oil and gas drilling in more than 80 percent of the country's coastal waters."

Update: Rockefeller reacts to the GOP block to The Register-Herald of Beckley.

West Virginia and Inbreeding

The recent joking remark told at West Virginia's expense by Vice President Dick Cheney prompted the Charleston Daily Mail to explore the Mountain State's "supposed penchant for inbreeding."

"Despite the ingrained stereotype, the inbreeding rate in West Virginia is no higher than other parts of the country, according to academic researchers and Appalachian culture experts," the article found.

One researcher "traces the stereotype to the 1920s and 1930s, an era of moonshining, vicious struggles over coal industry unionization and large-scale migration from the region," and that "the concept of family kinship appeared more prevalent in rural pockets of the country than in urban areas," the newspaper said.

Another tidbit: "From a legal standpoint, West Virginia actually has strict anti-incest laws. First cousins cannot marry here, yet they can in states such as Vermont, New York and California."

The article further observes that "even though the landmark film 'Deliverance' - which features toothless rapists and a mentally challenged albino banjo player - took place in Georgia, many folks associate it with West Virginia."

A worthy research project would be to figure out when and how this false connection took root in the nation's cultural conscience. After all, both the movie and the novel upon which it is based take place in the Georgia, the latter was written by a Georgian, and the former was filmed in Georgia (and the Carolinas). Nary a West Virginia link in sight.

Teacher Pension Update

Lawmakers expect to apply final tweaks to the recently approved transfer of more than 14,700 members of the state's 401(k)-style retirement plan for educators, The Associated Press reports.

Legislators say Gov. Joe Manchin is inclined to propose a measure that would add to this exodus a relative handful of Teachers' Defined Contribution plan members who missed last month's deadline "through no fault of their own," AP reports.

"Those members include Marion County educators whose as-yet-unidentified principal failed to submit them on time as required, said Executive Director Anne Lambright of the Consolidated Public Retirement Board," the article said.

The session could also include a funding measure meant to subsidize payments required if transfers want full benefits under their new plan. One lawmaker "estimates the needed amount at $11 million, though state officials say they're still calculating the final figure," AP reports. "Earlier estimates had ranged between $18 million and $25 million."

The Charleston Gazette also touches on that needed appropriation, while predicting that the final figure "would not be available in time for a proposed special legislative session later this month."

MetroNews, meanwhile, reports on the potential class-action lawsuit that would pit TDC members against the providers of one of their investment options.

The lawyers who filed the suit believe enrollees "were duped into signing up with life insurance company VALIC," MetroNews reports.

MetroNews also has audio of one of the lawyers, former House of Delegates member Rusty Webb.

Checking for Cancer in Wood County (Updated)

The Associated Press reports that "DuPont is planning a detailed study looking at why workers at a West Virginia plant appear to be getting a rare form of cancer at a higher rate than normal."

The study will focus on incidents of tumors among employees at its Washington Works facility near Parkersburg.

"DuPont first began looking into the situation in 2006 after two workers at the plant were diagnosed with carcinoid tumors," AP reports. "DuPont has since found 18 more instances of employees with carcinoid tumors across the country, including five more at Washington Works. The cancer cases date back to the 1980s and include current and retired employees."

A local health official tells MetroNews "he'll contact the Centers for Disease Control this week with recently released cancer statistics from the DuPont Plant near Parkersburg."

Dick Wittberg, director of the Mid-Ohio Valley Health Department, "wants to find out from the CDC if the numbers represent a cluster and if the rate is higher or significantly higher than random occurrences," MetroNews reports.

The Parkersburg News reports that DuPont has been relaying signs of "elevated cancer rates" at the Washington Works plant to the U.S. Department of Environmental Protection.

The tumors
are "rare, slow-growing tumors that usually appear both in the gastro intestinal system and in the lungs," Morel Symons, supervisor of the DuPont epidemiology program, told the newspaper. “They also are one of the few tumors that affect the appendix.”

Update: The Charleston Gazette got the ball rolling on Sunday, when it cited government records to report that "DuPont Co. officials have discovered evidence of a possible 'cancer cluster' among workers."

"The company has told federal regulators there may be a fivefold increase in certain cancers among Washington Works employees, compared to other DuPont plants," the article said.

09 June 2008

Justices Question Need for Another Court

Four of West Virginia's five Supreme Court justices expressed questions or concerns when asked by The Associated Press whether the state needs a midlevel appeals court.

Several have championed the concept after the high court unanimously "refused to hear two cases involving a combined $664 million in damages," AP reports.

A majority of the justices also said that such a course should not be pursued purely in reaction to those May refusals. ""Legislation strictly initiated by the most recent jarring headlines rarely results in good law," Justice Robin Davis told AP.

Election 2008: President

The New York Times casts West Virginia as solidly red as it maps out potential battleground states in the presidential race. But three of its neighbors -- Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania -- are considered to be in play.

The Mountain State also does not make the list of 15 where The Associated Press sees a competitive race between John McCain and Barack Obama.

Gov. Joe Manchin and Nick Casey, chair of the state's Democratic Party, both came out for Obama on the eve of Hillary Clinton's announcement that she was ending her campaign.

As AP reported, "Manchin asked West Virginians on Friday to follow Hillary Clinton's lead in supporting Democratic rival Barack Obama for the party's presidential nomination."

The Charleston Gazette and Charleston Daily Mail also had coverage of Manchin's call.