21 November 2008

Report Includes Ex-W.Va. Govs on Obama Roster

The Charleston Daily Mail relays reporting from The Chronicle of Higher Education that suggests that "former West Virginia Govs. Gaston Caperton and Bob Wise each have an outside shot of pushing education policies on the national front as part of President-elect Barack Obama's cabinet."

"Caperton, president of the College Board, and Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, are listed in the article after six other more likely candidates," the Daily Mail reports.

Some Shuffling, But No Turnover Yet as Manchin Preps for 2nd Term (Updated)

The Associated Press notes some promotions slated at Gov. Joe Manchin's administration once he's inaugurated Jan. 19.

"Communications Director Lara Ramsburg will move up to the now-vacant post of director of policy," the article said. Press Secretary Matt Turner will succeed Ramsburg and in turn will be replaced by press aide Sarah Payne Scarbro, fresh from the re-election campaign.

MetroNews also has those changes, and word from Manchin that Chief of Staff Larry Puccio “is staying put.”

Update: Well, that didn't take long.

Remembering Farmington

(Photo from W.Va. Division of Culture & History)

It was 40 years ago this week that 78 men descended into the sprawling No. 9 mine in Farmington, W.Va., never to return to the surface.

A massive, early morning explosion left them dead or trapped below. Additional explosions and fires ultimately thwarted rescue attempts, and what remained of the mine was sealed 10 days later.

(By 1978, the mine had been unsealed and 59 bodies recovered before it was again closed off. The state Division of Culture and History has a roster of the dead.)

The Charleston Gazette marks the anniversary by talking to survivors of those killed, including Gov. Joe Manchin. The 1968 disaster had triggered a push for mine safety measures, and Manchin often invoked the loss of his Uncle John there when he renewed that drive following this decade's mine fatalities at Sago and Aracoma.

The Gazette also offers video of some of the interviews, an image of its front-page coverage of the disaster, and the 1990 report from a federal probe of Farmington with an analysis.

National Public Radio and state Public Broadcasting also marked the anniversary -- and highlights possible evidence of what cause the disaster, considered a mystery to date:
(S)everal months after the explosion, a federal investigator discovered one possible explanation — a safety alarm on a ventilation fan had been deliberately disabled... That memo — and sworn testimony taken after the disaster — suggest that no one had to die on Nov. 20, 1968. Had this alarm been working, the men most likely would have been evacuated before the explosion.
That coverage includes both audio and video.

The Times-West Virginian of Fairmont was on hand for this year's memorial outside the disaster site, attended by Manchin and others.

The governor also spoke to MetroNews about the disaster and its effect on him and his family.

20 November 2008

State Employees Balking at Insurance Hikes

Proposed rate increases and benefit cuts in their Public Employees Insurance Agency health coverage turned out more than 100 state workers, teachers and retirees against the changes at a Wednesday hearing, The Charleston Gazette reports.

"Public workers have been told for years that the benefits package is a trade-off for what is the lowest pay for public workers in the nation," union official Steve Thompson is quoted as telling representatives of the PEIA Finance Board. "This PEIA plan proposal is essentially docking the pay of public workers."

The Gazette explains that "as tentatively adopted by the PEIA Finance Board Nov. 6, the plan proposes a 9 percent increase in employee premiums as of July 1, 2009, to be followed by increases in excess of 10 percent each year for the following three years... Retirees would see an 11 percent premium increase in July, followed by larger increases for each of the following three years."

"Retirees, who made up a majority of the crowd, stressed that they are even less able to shallow an 11 percent premium hike, living on fixed incomes with no cost of living increases in their state pensions," The Gazette reported.

PEIA officials argue that "state employees have not had a premium increase in three years, although PEIA's medical and prescription drug costs have been increasing at a rate of about 7 percent a year," the article said.

Public Broadcasting
has a report on the proposal, with audio, while MetroNews also covered the Charleston hearing.

Supreme Court Responds to Fired Official

"After initially declining comment" when fired Supreme Court official Pancho Morris alleged retaliation by Administrative Director Steve Canterbury, the court "responded Wednesday with a two-page statement that challenges each of Morris' allegations and calls those directed at Canterbury 'scurrilous, offensive lies,'" The Associated Press reports.

"Morris alleges he had reported racist language" by Canterbury before his Friday discharge, the article said. Morris, who is black, "also says he was targeted over the now infamous European vacation photos that contributed to the election defeat of Chief Justice Elliott 'Spike' Maynard."

Wednesday's statement said "the racist language attributed to Canterbury by Morris came from two incidents in which Canterbury was quoting someone else," and that "while Morris did allege racial discrimination to Canterbury during a discussion, he never complained or contacted the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission," AP reported.

As for the photos, the article notes that Maynard's supporters had sought to link them to his political enemies after they became public in January, before he lost the Democratic primary in May.

The statement said that "Canterbury has never accused Mr. Morris of having anything to do with the release of those photos, nor has anyone else at the Supreme Court,'' and that "the release of those photos has never been investigated by the Administrative Office, or any other agency.''

MetroNews also reports on Wednesday's statement.

Update: Justice Larry Starcher tells AP he wants it known that he and his colleagues played no role in either decision by Canterbury's office to fire Morris or issue Wednesday's statement.

Quote of the Day

"Nine of the eleven (coal miners) came out even with the mistake. The two that didn't either, for whatever reason, didn't get their masks on or panicked."

-- Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship, on MetroNews Talkline discussing the recent settlement of wrongful death claims arising from the 2006 Aracoma mine fire that killed two Massey miners.

(The Charleston Gazette notes that federal investigators found both men had donned their emergency breathing devices. "We can only say that they demonstrate a special lack of grace," a lawyer for their widows said of Blankenship's statements.)

19 November 2008

W.Va. Troopers Vent in Survey

More than 360 state troopers assigned to field detachments _ about 82 percent of the in-the-field total _ responded to a questionnaire from legislative auditors about working conditions. Among the highlights, as reported by The Associated Press:

  • A majority -- 247 troopers or 68 percent of those responding -- said their areas lacked adequate police coverage at all times.
  • Nearly a fourth claimed that State Police brass impose an unofficial monthly quota for traffic warnings or citations. Several pegged that quota at 100 "contacts."
  • About 30 percent say they're punished for not meeting their quotas.
  • More than one-fifth believe troopers are arbitrarily transferred or relocated as a form of discipline, even though that's against state law.
State Police officials have responded to the audit report, agreeing with some findings but disputing the quota allegations.

Legislative auditors have posted both the survey report and an appendix of the more than 1,800 comments submitted by the responding troopers.

AP and The Charleston Gazette reported earlier on a separate audit that found spotty record-keeping and improper storage of valuables at several State Police detachment evidence rooms.

Recession Looming for W.Va.

West Virginia will soon join most other states and watch as global financial woes shrink its economy and the ranks of its employed, The Associated Press reports.

AP was on hand for the latest West Virginia University forum on forecasting the state's economic health. The Charleston Gazette, Public Broadcasting (with audio) and MetroNews also covered the annual outlook conference.

"We are right on the edge of recession and a big part of that story is the slowdown in the goods-producing sectors," WVU economics professor George Hammond said. "The silver lining on that cloud is that we're actually doing better than the national economy."

The forecast calls for a net loss of about 4,800, or 0.7 percent, of jobs in West Virginia from 2008 to 2009, the article said.

MetroNews has audio both from Hammond's presentation and from David Wyss from Standard and Poor's, who commented on the national economy.

Ex-Supreme Court Official Links Firing to MonacoGate

A lawyer fired from the state Supreme Court blames his ouster on racism and the now-infamous Monaco vacation photos that roiled the court earlier this year, The Associated Press reports.

A lawyer for the fired official, Pancho Morris, wrote a Monday letter to Administrative Director Steve Canterbury outlining the grounds under which he planned to challenge his discharge.

The letter alleges that "Canterbury accused Pancho Morris of leaking details about Maynard's Monaco rendezvous with Massey Energy Chief Executive Don Blankenship."

It also tells Canterbury he retaliated against Morris ""because he blew the whistle to state officials on your use of the 'N' word and other racially derogatory language in the administrative office."

Morris talked about some of his allegations both to AP and the Charleston Daily Mail.

18 November 2008

Quote of the Day

"I am humbled by the power of the market, and the utter disregard it has for the welfare of the participants. It's kind of a cold-hearted beast, and we felt that like everybody else."

-- Executive Director Craig Slaughter of the West Virginia Investment Management Board, explaining to legislators that the state's portfolio has lost 25% of its value since July 1, as reported by The Associated Press.

W.Va. Investment Down 25%

"The ongoing Wall Street crisis has washed away a fourth of the value from West Virginia's investment portfolio - a $2.5 billion decline - since the state's budget year began July 1," The Associated Press reports.

Executive Director Craig Slaughter delivered the bad news to a special joint meeting of House and Senate committees during this week's interim legislative session. The severe hit will affect next year's state budget, has prompted a spending review by the Manchin administration and has erased a portion of the state's "rainy day" fund.

But tax revenue projections and other factors suggest the state remains better off than many others. And "citing Wall Street's historical ability to rebound," Slaughter said "the board plans to stick with its investment strategy and stay in the market at current levels," AP reports.

"Slaughter expects to recoup most of the losses over time, depending on the pace of the eventual recovery, except for about $49.3 million invested in such financial crisis casualties as Lehman Brothers and Washington Mutual," the article said.

The Charleston Gazette and MetroNews (with audio of Slaughter) also have reports.

17 November 2008

Aracoma Case Settles Amid Trial

"The widows of two men killed in a 2006 coal mine fire in West Virginia settled a wrongful death lawsuit against Massey Energy Co., attorneys for both sides announced Monday," reports The Associated Press.

AP notes that the civil trial settled midway through the videotaped deposition testimony of Massey CEO Don Blankenship, a co-defendant. It also follows Friday's decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to review the reversal of a judgment against Massey by the state Supreme Court.

The Charleston Gazette and MetroNews also have details from Logan County.

W.Va. City Ranked as Unhealthiest, Fattest in U.S.

In the wake of a recent federal report on the health of U.S. communities, The Associated Press profiles Huntington as "America's fattest and unhealthiest city."

"Nearly half the adults in Huntington's five-county metropolitan area are obese - an astounding percentage, far bigger than the national average in a country with a well-known weight problem," the article said. "Huntington leads in a half-dozen other illness measures, too, including heart disease and diabetes. It's even tops in the percentage of elderly people who have lost all their teeth (half of them have)."

The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington and WSAZ-TV (with video) are among those with follow-up coverage, including local reaction and questions raised about the findings and report.

The Charleston Gazette reports separately on childhood obesity in the Mountain State.

West Virginia as a Blue State

The Associated Press explores the phenomenon that has seen West Virginia go red in three consecutive presidential elections, but deep blue when it comes to statewide, legislative and county races.

The review included an analysis that found West Virginia among just a handful of states that have seen one party _ the Democrats, in each case _ hold majorities in both chambers of their legislatures consistently since the days for FDR.

For most of those states _ Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana _ Democratic dominance dates back to the end of Reconstruction.

AP also reports separately on the few shortcoming state Democrats encountered on Election Day, including the presidential race, while assessing possible future challenges. To state Chairman Nick Casey, they include a better way to respond to massive spending against its candidates, as seen with the last-minute TV ad buys by pro-business groups.

"I want to see the state party have enough resources so the next time one of these interests come in and try to take a swipe at a Democratic candidate, we can push back,'' Casey told AP. "We didn't feel powerless, but it is a very distinct disadvantage.''

2009 Means Pay Raises for Manchin et. al.

MetroNews notes that winning a second term has also earned Gov. Joe Manchin a $55,000 salary boost, thanks to legislation passed in 2006.

The hike is among an array for elected officials from that bill scheduled for 2009 . Lawmakers also raised the pay of numerous appointed officeholders, at Manchin's request.

Manchin's annual salary will rise from $95,000 to $150,000. "The governor still lags behind several other state workers in salaries including university football coaches, college presidents and state School Superintendent Steve Paine," MetroNews notes.

The 2006 legislation raised the yearly pay of the rest of the Board of Public Works to $95,000.