16 January 2009

W.Va. Teachers Still Plan to Press for Raises

The signs of tightening financial times won't deter West Virginia's teacher groups from "an aggressive push on lawmakers this session for better pay and more reasonable health care costs," the Charleston Daily Mail reports.

The West Virginia Education Association "wants a multi-year pay increase of between 4 percent and 5 percent a year until the state's average education pay is competitive with other states," the article said.

The American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia " would like to see a $5,000 across-the-board pay increase next year, followed by $2,500 increases the next two years."

Each also wants a change in the breakdown of premiums divided between teachers and their school system employers, the article adds.

"Lawmakers last year approved a 3 percent raise for teachers and education workers," the article notes. "Last year also was the last of a four-year incremental pay raise schedule for educators, so some teachers saw a little more money there."

They Voted for You: Wilderness

U.S. Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., helped pass the "Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009."

The 73-21 vote advances legislation "to set aside more than 2 million acres in nine states as protected wilderness and allow Alaska to build an airport access road through a wildlife refuge," The Associated Press reports.

The Charleston Gazette reported earlier that the huge package of public land protections in the bill include "a broad expansion of wilderness areas in the Monongahela National Forest."

One Republican opponent called the measure "a land-grab that would lock up acreage that could be used for future development such as oil and gas drilling," the AP article said.

W.Va. Hospitals Brace for Recession

The Associated Press highlights how hospitals in West Virginia and elsewhere are not immune to the grim economic times that are zapping jobs and employers from an array of other industries.

"Hospitals from California to Maine find themselves forced to cut costs as they confront tight credit, investment losses and higher costs coupled with more charity care, more unpaid hospital bills and more people deferring all but the most essential treatments," AP reports. "And they're doubly challenged to make the cuts without jeopardizing patient care."

W.Va. Tackles Prison Problem

In the wake of repeated projections of a booming prison population, Gov. Joe Manchin has appointed a special commission to supply him with answers by July 1, The Associated Press reports.

"Division of Corrections estimates show the state inmate population will grow to 8,530 by 2012," the article said. "Manchin's executive order directs the commission to identify resources that can be spent on prison diversion programs such as community-based corrections or alternative sentencing. The commission also is to determine if additional prisons are needed."

But the article also notes that "the state Supreme Court created a seven-member panel last month to determine if the court needs to reinsert itself into the correctional system debate." The court has picked a former jail official recently fired by the Manchin administration to head its effort.

15 January 2009

Remembering Marland

Former West Virginia Gov. William Casey Marland (1953-1957) made history several different ways, as Public Broadcasting notes: "a severance tax on natural resources, his stance on school integration," and "his reputation as an alcoholic" that led to the now-infamous 1965 discovery that after his term that he had ended up "driving a Chicago cab as part of a self-made rehabilitation program."

Public Broadcasting
brings that and more back to the forefront with a new documentary, "Reconstructing Bill," that will air on its Outlook program tonight at 9 p.m. and again 6 p.m. Sunday.

Public Broadcasting also offers the above five-minute preview on YouTube.

They Voted for You: Children's Health Insurance

All three of West Virginia's U.S. House members helped pass legislation Wednesday "to extend and improve the Children's Health Insurance Program."

Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st; Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd; and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, voted for the "Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009" in a 289-139 roll call.

The Associated Press reports that the bill would "expand government-sponsored insurance to 4 million more children in working families with income too high to qualify for Medicaid."

But "between 300,000 and 600,000 of the new enrollees could be non-citizen children of legal immigrants who have been in the country less than five years," AP observes, calling that a "sticking point for some Senate Republicans who also will consider a similar bill."

"Congress passed similar legislation in 2007 but it was vetoed both times by departing President George W. Bush," the article said, while Barack Obama said "he hoped the Senate acts with the 'same sense of urgency so that it can be one of the first measures I sign into law when I am president.'"

14 January 2009

79th Legislature Swears In, Elects Leaders, Recesses

Earl Ray Tomblin will continue his streak as the longest-serving Senate president in state history, and House Speaker Rick Thompson was also re-elected as the Legislature convened and voted on its top leaders Wednesday.

The House and Senate also jointly certified November's balloting returns before recessing until Feb. 11, when their 60-day session begins.

As The Associated Press reports, lawmakers are "already preparing for tight financial times," mindful of the national recession and the budget woes facing most other states.

Wednesday's smooth proceedings -- Tomblin was re-elected by acclamation, while Thompson enjoyed the backing of all House Democrats present -- contrasts what befell the Tennessee House (in a dispatch written by a former denizen of AP's Charleston statehouse bureau).

W.Va. Lawmakers Briefed on 4-Day Gov't Workweek

Legislators has received an overview of Utah's ongoing pilot project, "which last August mandated that 17,000 of its 24,000 state employees switch to four-day workweeks," The Charleston Gazette reports.

"Utah officials estimate that the reduced amount of commuting to and from work will save state employees $6 million," the article said. "The state itself expects to save $3 million from reduced utility costs for offices that are closed three days each week."

The article also said that "members of the Government Organization and Government Operations committees weren't completely convinced Tuesday that a four-day workweek would be a good idea in West Virginia."

79th Legislature Readies For Session

West Virginia's 79th Legislature plans to meet briefly Wednesday to elect leaders, and then recess until Feb. 11 and Gov. Joe Manchin's fifth State of the State address.

The Associated Press sets the stage. Both House Speaker Rick Thompson, D-Wayne, and Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin, D-Logan, have been nominated to retain those top posts. Tomblin is already the longest-serving Senate president in state history, while Thompson is headed toward a second, two-year term atop the House.

Changing the PROMISE

A new report recommends that West Virginia cap its merit-based, PROMISE college scholarship awards to $4,500 a year to arrest explosive growth in the program, The Associated Press reports.

The advisory committee assigned to assess PROMISE found evidence that its was meeting its goals, albeit modestly, of increasing the state's college-going rate and its share of degree holders.

But the report also links prior efforts to control costs, by upping academic requirements, to a drop in the percentage of lower income students reaching college.

"An unintended consequence is that lower-income recipients become ineligible at a higher rate than their middle- or upper-income counterparts," the report said.

The committee also "found more harm than good with converting the scholarships into loans for recipients who then leave the state," AP reports. "Gov. Joe Manchin had proposed that change last year, then withdrew it to await the study's results when lawmakers balked."

The report further recommends a community service component for recipients. The Charleston Gazette had earlier outlined what had been expected from the committee's report, released Tuesday to legislators. MetroNews also has an item, with audio from Higher Education Policy Commission Chairman Brian Noland.

Homelessness in West Virginia

West Virginia may have one of the lower rates of homelessness in the country, but has the highest rate of those within that population who are chronically so, a new report estimates.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness found that 48% of the state's homeless in 2007 were chronic, or "individuals with a disability who have been homeless for long periods or who experience repeated episodes of homelessness."

The report also notes the problems in collecting reliable data to estimate chronic portions of that population. West Virginia's overall homeless rate was 13 out of every 10,000 residents. Nevada had the worst per-capita rate, of 49, and Mississippi the lowest at 5 per 10,000.

MetroNews reported on the findings. "Also notable from the report is that West Virginia experienced a 58-percent increase in its homeless population during the two years of that study," its item said. "The state began the study in 2005 with only 1,522 people who qualified as homeless. Two years later that jumped to 2,409 people living in either a shelter or on the street."

13 January 2009

W.Va. Pushed to Expand Medicaid

A national health care advocacy group believes West Virginia could boost its economy by expanding its Medicaid program to cover more working parent, The Associated Press reports.

"Washington, D.C.-based Families USA released a report Monday that says expanding parents' eligibility from $6,160 in annual income for a family of three to $17,600 could generate $73 million in new federal money," the article said. "That money, in turn, could generate 1,351 new jobs, $46 million more in wages and $132 million in increased business activity as doctors, nurses and others buy goods and services."

The Charleston Gazette also covers Monday's report, noting that Manchin administration officials are reviewing it but believe it "underestimates the number of West Virginia adults who would become eligible for Medicaid under the higher income limit."

One officials suggested the move would increase annual Medicaid spending by more than $53 million, while adding 67,000 adults to its rolls.

"West Virginia children qualify for Medicaid coverage, provided their parents make $44,000 or less as part of a family of three," that article said. "But working adults across the state aren't eligible for Medicaid unless they make less than $6,160 - the seventh-lowest income threshold in the nation. The restrictive requirement hasn't been changed in more than a decade."

Fed Stimulus Could Help, Hinder W.Va. Road Fund

"The far-reaching federal stimulus plan expected from President-elect Barack Obama will likely delay any serious overhaul of West Virginia's State Road Fund," The Associated Press reports. "Lawmakers discussing state highway funding on Monday said they should wait to see just what the estimated $775 billion package might provide for Mountain State road projects."

The Manchin administration expects to ask for $2.2 billion, the price tag for "projects that would qualify for funds under the proposed terms of the stimulus," AP reports. "About $970 million of the state's total reflects road- and bridge-related projects, with $224 million of that coming from the West Virginia Turnpike."

But legislators were also reminded that they must still address the chronic funding problems of the State Road Fund, the principal source of state revenues for West Virginia's highway needs.

Others with coverage include The Charleston Gazette, MetroNews and The Register-Herald of Beckley. The latter two also quote Senate Finance Chairman Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas, criticizing the state's decision (proposed by Gov. Joe Manchin, approved by the Legislature) to freeze a scheduled 2009 increase of state gas taxes. MetroNews has audio.

W.Va. Hospital Among Madoff Casualties

The $50 billion Ponzi scheme allegedly orchestrated by Bernard Madoff included West Virginia in its scope, The Charleston Gazette reports.

Charleston Area Medical Center lost $200,000 in the apparent scheme while its foundation is out another $800,000, the newspaper reports.

"It's an actual loss we're recording," Larry Hudson, CAMC's chief financial officer, is quoted as saying. "It's an operational loss we'll have to work with."

"A growing number of prestigious charitable foundations, international banks and individuals have acknowledged falling victim to what is alleged to be the largest financial fraud in history," the article said. "CAMC officials plan to discuss the $1 million loss when the hospital's Board of Trustees meets Jan. 28"

12 January 2009

W.Va. Rainy Day Fund Takes a $133m Hit

The Wall Street meltdown has weakened West Virginia's emergency reserves by $133 million, spurring a debate over whether or how the state should invest such funds, The Associated Press reports.

"The so-called rainy day fund had equaled about 15 percent of the state's general revenue budget in June, for one of the best savings rates in the country," AP reports. "It now contains about $448 million, or 11.5 percent of general revenue," though "that's still better than the 10 percent level advocated by bond rating agencies."

While "Senate Finance Chairman Walt Helmick said the state should never have started investing its rainy day fund," Revenue Secretary Virgil Helton "advised against immediately yanking the fund's investments, as Helmick seemed to suggest."

"That would be the easy thing to do, and the dumb thing to do," the article quotes Helton as saying. "Helton said that while the values of its holdings have dropped, it could eventually regain all but about $50 million that had been invested with such global crisis casualties as Lehman Brothers and Washington Mutual."

The Charleston Gazette also has coverage.

W.Va. Supreme Court Starts New Term Tuesday

The Associated Press previews the state Supreme Court in advance of Tuesday's start of its Spring 2009 term.

"West Virginia's legal community does not seem to expect major changes to the state Supreme Court from its two newest justices," the article said, casting Margaret Workman and Menis Ketchum as moderates likely to calm a perceived rancor at the state's top court.

"Workman and Ketchum join a five-member court that issued unanimous rulings in 77 percent of its opinions published last year. About 60 percent of those decisions were unsigned, meaning they broke no new legal ground," the article said. "But the pair also arrive amid continuing ethics allegations that have drawn national headlines since last year."

A New Prison for West Virginia?

State corrections officials tell legislators that the rising inmate population makes the need nearly unavoidable, The Register-Herald of Beckley reports.

Expecting 8,530 people sentenced to prison by 2012,
"West Virginia has space for only 5,300 prisoners, and currently, the 10-unit regional jail system is housing 1,200 convicts since there is no room for them," the article said. "A new prison would cost in the neighborhood of $200 million."

The Charleston Gazette also covered that legislative interim meeting. It notes that lawmakers were told that " changes in sentencing appear to be one factor."

"Since 2000, the number of inmates sentenced on drug charges has jumped 9.7 percent, while those convicted of property crimes has increased 5.7 percent," that article said. Five years ago, "62 percent of inmates in state prisons were violent offenders. Now, a majority of inmates are serving time for non-violent offenses."

Coal-ash Dams in W.Va.

West Virginia has at least 16 of the sort of dam that unleashed more than 1 billion gallons of wet coal ash in Tennessee when it failed last month, but they "haven't been examined by a state dam safety inspector for at least five years," The Charleston Gazette reports.

"Some of the facilities have gone more than 20 years without a government inspection," the article said, citing data released by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The article features an online interactive map. The Gazette also follows up by reporting that "federal investigators have identified serious deficiencies in West Virginia's effort to ensure coal slurry impoundments do not break into nearby underground mines."