14 February 2009

Appeals Court Reverses Another MTR Ruling

A 2-1 ruling by a 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel has overturned a federal judge's ruling that aimed to require " more extensive environmental reviews of mountaintop removal mining," The Associated Press reports.

"The rulings are a blow to environmentalists and coalfield neighbors who oppose the highly efficient but destructive practice that exposes thin, shallow coal seams," the article said. "The decision is a big win for mine operators," as "mountaintop permits have slowed to a trickle since March 2007, when the (Army Corps of Engineers) was ordered by U.S. District Judge Chuck Chambers to rescind several permits."

The Charleston Gazette also has coverage. MetroNews has a report and audio of West Virginia Coal Association President Bill Raney.

13 February 2009

The Voted For You: Federal Stimulus (Updated)

U.S. Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, helped the House pass the compromise version of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-3rd, opposed the measure, as did all the other House GOP member present for the 246-183 vote.

"All but seven Democrats voted for the bill - a 1,071 page, 8-inch-thick measure that combines $281 billion in tax cuts for individuals and businesses with more than a half-trillion dollars in government spending," The Associated Press reports. "The money would go for infrastructure, health care and help for cash-starved state governments, among scores of programs. Seniors would get a $250 bonus Social Security check."

"Republicans said the package won't work because it has too little in tax cuts and spreads too much money around to everyday projects like computer upgrades for federal agencies," the article also said. "It now goes to the Senate where a vote was possible late Friday to meet a deadline of passing the plan before a recess begins next week."

Capito had been pressed earlier to support the stimulus bill, and the state Democratic Party was quick to issue an e-mail release attacking her "no" vote.

Update: Capito's office has issued its own release, and she also spoke to MetroNews (with audio).

With Senate passage of the stimulus bill, also on Friday, the measure heads to President Obama, AP reports.

The National Conference of State Legislatures has devoted a page of web site to the bill and its implications for states.

FactCheck.org, meanwhile, examines claims about the bill from both sides.

Manchin Kinda Proposes a Tax Hike

Gov. Joe Manchin has sent the Legislature a measure that would hit up both employers and workers if the state's unemployment compensation fund loses too much money.

As The Associated Press reports, the governor's bill would "restore a temporary assessment provision last triggered after the unemployment compensation fund suffered insolvency in the 1980s."

That mechanism, dormant since 1990, would add a 0.5 percent-of-payroll charge to the tax of sorts that employers already pay into the fund. Workers would see a slight percentage withheld from their wages for the fund as well. Weekly benefit levels would also freeze during these temporary hikes.

"The governor's legislation proposes to reactivate those payment increases if the fund dips below $180 million by the end of any quarter," AP reports. "But West Virginia's fund may hit that red zone well before his bill would take effect July 1, if it passes, even without the expected rise in unemployment."

AP explains that "West Virginia's fund ended January with a $213.9 million balance, after paying $18.4 million in benefits that month. It declined by a similar amount the previous month. At that rate, the fund would fall below $180 million by March."

The assessments would cease once the fund balance exceeds $250 million, according to the bill.

Quote of the Day

“What position would the state of West Virginia be in if it was not for seniority?”

-- Sen. John Pat Fanning, D-McDowell, while expressing
"degradation, disappointment and dissatisfaction" at being passed over for president pro tempore, as reported by The Charleston Gazette and The Register-Herald of Beckley.

Budget Boom Helps Prompt Manchin Court Study

The state judiciary's budget has grown by more than half in the last five years, an increase that helped prompt Gov. Joe Manchin to seek a study commission for West Virginia's court system, The Associated Press reports.

The executive order that Manchin declared he'll sign is not ready yet, but he told his State of the State audience Wednesday that "this commission will be directed to look at all options, including creating an intermediate court, improving the judicial budget process, achieving more transparency in our judicial election campaigns, as well as the best method for selecting judges."

"Figures show that the judiciary's share of general revenue has jumped 57 percent in the last five budget years, from $76.4 million in 2005 to nearly $120 million requested for 2010," the article said. "The rate of growth is greater than that of either the executive branch or the Legislature."

The courts' administrator notes his branch's still-tiny share of general revenue -- just 3 percent this year -- and tells AP the judiciary welcomes the review.

AP notes that at least three other recent reviews have weighed judicial selection in recent years, while a study commission recommended an intermediate appeals court in 1998.

Reactions Roll in to Manchin's '09 Agenda

Groups representing teachers tell The Associated Press that they don't see the need to reschedule the state's 180-day school calendar as Gov. Joe Manchin has proposed.

"State law fixes the start and end of the school year — no earlier than Aug. 26, no later than June 8 — which means there’s very little wiggle room in a year with, for example, lots of weather-related cancellations," AP's Tom Breen explains. "Manchin said he wants to change all that, starting the year earlier and allowing the possibility of extending the year later in June."

Teachers also say they are disappointed but not surprised by the governor all but ruling out pay increases, the News and Sentinel of Parkersburg reports. (They appear more upset with a recommendation regarding hiring made by a administration advisory board, The Charleston Gazette observes.)

But legislative leaders tell MetroNews it's their call whether next year's budget includes salary hikes.

Lawmakers are also bemoaning the state's revenue picture as outlined by Manchin officials. The Gazette and The Register-Herald of Beckley have items.

MetroNews also reports on the budget picture, while the Charleston Daily Mail focuses on the desire by House Republicans desire to cut taxes with the state's emergency reserves.

12 February 2009

Quote of the Day

"It may be the ship has already sailed."

U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-3rd, telling The Associated Press that the broad but recently rescinded moratorium on offshore oil drilling won't likely be reinstated.

State of the State: A Haiku

Squawk Box, The Charleston Gazette's new blog for its legislative beat, offers this poetic summary of Gov. Joe Manchin's State of the State address:

State budget is broke
Sorry, no raises this year
Look, there’s Pat White!

(Inspired, apparently, by an observation from MetroNews Talkline host Hoppy Kercheval.)

Capito Assets Eyed

The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics says Capito had the most invested of any House Financial Services Committee member with the eight Wall Street firms whose top executives appeared before that panel this week.

The CEO had been called to testify "about how their companies are using billions of dollars in bailout funds," the group noted. "Nearly every member of the committee received contributions associated with these financial institutions during the 2008 election cycle, for a total of $1.8 million. And 18 of the lawmakers have their own personal funds invested in the companies."

Besides listing investments worth between $1.1 million and $5.3 million in her latest financial disclosure, Capito also received $61,699 in contributions from those interests - behind only the ranking Republican among the committee's GOP members.

The numbers prompted this observation in a New York Times item Wednesday:

Some members of the committee may have a more personal reason to go after the bankers: They are shareholders of these banks and, as a result, have only seen the value of their holdings plummet.

The biggest loser may well be Representative Shelley Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican who reported having $1.1 million to $5.3 million invested in some of these banks prior the collapse in their stock prices.
Earlier this year, Roll Call speculated that Capito may have taken the largest hit to personal assets among House members, "thanks to the credit crisis that has cleaved the value of shares in banks and other financial institutions."

That article traced her potential losses to what was then a massive slide in the stock of Citigroup, where her husband is an executive with one of its divisions.

Capito Pressed over Stimulus

The Hill says U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, has been hit up by Obama Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a former congressman "leaning on his ex-colleagues to back the president’s stimulus package."

Capito is among 11 Republican representatives that LaHood said he's phoned. Capito hasn't made a final decision, the newspaper reported, but "seems to be leaning no. She has scheduled a 'town hall meeting via conference call' with her constituents to hear feedback before deciding."

Yet, The Hill also includes Capito among GOP members "who may vote to back the final stimulus bill." It offers this reasoning:

The bill would bring a fair amount of funds to West Virginia, something that Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) will be touting. A vote against the stimulus could come back to haunt Capito if she runs for the Senate down the road.
The Hill also reports that Capito has again been targeted by radio ads over her "no" vote on the House stimulus bill.

Spots by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and Americans United for Change urge support for the compromise measure that emerged Wednesday.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee attacked Capito in ads earlier this month.

Manchin's State of the State

Gov. Joe Manchin outlined a dozen or so proposals Wednesday during a State of the State address that invoked West Virginia's recent economic successes in the face of a deepening recession, The Associated Press and others report.

The state's current footing allows it to avoid drastic cuts to services and other harsh steps pursued by harder hit peers, Manchin said. But while dampening the prospects for any tax hikes, he ruled out pay raises and warned lawmakers against upping spending. He also made no mention of the sort of tax cuts and breaks advocated by the Legislature's minority Republicans.

AP reports separately on Manchin's proposed 2009-2010 state budget, which slightly increases spending over the current year but balances without major cuts or tax increases. But the real news may be that "Manchin's budget team is forecasting a $244 million deficit for the 2011 fiscal year" under current revenue and spending projections.

The governor's web site offers the webcast of the speech as well as text and his administration's budget presentation to lawmakers.

Others on hand to cover the 45-minute address include:

11 February 2009

79th Legislature Gavels In, Awaits State of the State

The House of Delegates and Senate each held afternoon floors sessions and assigned nearly 300 bills before recessing until Gov. Joe Manchin's State of the State address, The Associated Prees reports.

Manchin will deliver his fifth since taking office at 7 p.m. The governor's Web site will stream the speech live, while Public Broadcasting is among those offering coverage.

WSAZ-TV and MetroNews each preview possible topics. The Charleston Daily Mail and WOWK-TV report that state teachers plan to rally outside the House Chamber in advance of Manchin's speech.

The American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia and the state School Service Personnel Association are calling for "using expected federal stimulus money for meaningful investment in West Virginia’s public schools," the latter reports. "Additionally, the organizations want elected officials to make employee salaries more competitive with surrounding states, protect personnel rights and expand school technology and infrastructure."

Quote of the Day

"No one has come to me and said, 'We have a problem with nepotism.'''

-- State Personnel Director Otis Cox, responding to a legislative audit's findings, quoted by The Associated Press.

Preparing for the 79th Legislature (Updated)

The Associated Press sets the stage for the 60-day regular session, which begins today with noon floor sessions.

In advance of the regular session, the Legislature ended its interim meetings in a flurry of activity:

  • AP has an item on one audit that found that "enrolling students at WVU Tech has become so hard that not even the equivalent of free housing for half the people living in residence halls was enough to reverse a decline that began in 1991." The school lost $1.5 million in the failed bid, the article said. The Charleston Gazette and The Register-Herald of Beckley also have coverage.
  • A separate audit suggests ways to improve hiring at the state Division of Personnel, while noting that its director is the lowest-paid such official in the country, AP reports. Others with coverage include The Gazette and MetroNews.
  • "A study commisioned by lawmakers on alleged racial profiling by West Virginia police shows black and Hispanic motorists are more likely to be stopped and searched than whites," AP reports.
  • The Manchin administration received an update on its Healthy Lifestyles initiatives, which among other findings "says West Virginia schools should require recess more often and mandate the sale of healthy foods to improve their students' overall health," AP reports. Others with items include The Register-Herald and MetroNews.
  • The House Republicans issued an agenda for the session that includes deeper and quicker tax cuts. GOP delegates also " think West Virginia puts too much money into its emergency reserves," AP reports. MetroNews (with audio), The Gazette and the Beckley paper also offer coverage.
  • (Update) WOWK-TV covered the breakfast briefing for lawmakers held by the Charleston Area Chamber of Commerce.

DEP Blows Off Coal Slurry Report

"A study into the effects of coal slurry on groundwater has missed three deadlines and is still months from completion, and lawmakers are running out of patience," The Associated Press reports.

As AP's Tom Breen explains, the Legislature in 2006 told the Department of Environmental Protection "to determine what effect coal slurry -- a chemical soup formed during the process of cleaning coal -- may have on groundwater when it's injected into worked-out mines."

The 2006 resolution called on DEP to deliver findings by the end of 2007. "The department missed that, and subsequent deadlines in June and December of 2008," AP reports.

Before lawmakers lined up Tuesday to blast DEP Secretary Randy Huffman, AP's Vicki Smith highlighted his agency's failure to conduct the assigned study.

"The DEP cannot say precisely what's in that waste, how much is injected annually, or whether and where it migrates," that article said.

AP's Smith also recently focused on the lawsuit filed by hundreds of Boone County residents alleging eight coal companies "poisoned their wells by pumping mine wastes into former underground mines."

Public Broadcasting also covered Tuesday's interim meeting (with audio), while The Charleston Gazette earlier detailed the water woes in Boone County.

They Voted for You: Stimulus

U.S. Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia joined their fellow Democrats in voting to pass the Senate's version of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Three Republicans joined the majority in the 61-37 roll call on the $838 billion bill. With no time to celebrate, "the White House plunged into compromise talks with congressional leaders on a final version," The Associated Press reports.

AP offers breakdowns of the House and Senate versions of the bill both here and here.

10 February 2009

No School for Underwood, Yet

What may have been the first attempt to name something after former Gov. Cecil Underwood since his November death proved unsuccessful, the Tyler Star News reports.

"With little fanfare and virtually no citizens to voice their opinions, the Tyler County Board of Education unanimously voted down a motion that would have allowed the board to rename a school" for the late governor, a county native the newspaper reports. "No board members spoke for or against the motion."

(As travelers between Charleston and Huntington may know, at least one thing in West Virginia already bears his name. Lawmakers re-dubbed a stretch of Interstate 64 in honor of Underwood during his second and final term as governor, in 1999.)

Even Before Meltdown, W.Va. Pensions Took Big Hits

Legislators have finally gotten figures from West Virginia's public pension plans for the budget year that ended July 1, and they show that their value dropped by nearly $600 million during that time, The Associated Press reports.

That decline, mostly from market losses, preceded the multibillion-dollar beating that the state's investment portfolio took during the Wall Street meltdown later in the second half of 2008. Pension assets form the bulk of the funds overseen by the Investment Management Board.

The collective unfunded liability of the seven plans with invested assets grew by $1.3 billion to climb beyond $5 billion, AP reports. But the Consolidated Public Retirement Board "is sticking with its projected annual rate of return of 7.5 percent," the article said.

Audit Finds More Problems at Bluefield State

"Money that should have gone to Bluefield State College was instead being deposited by its athletic program with the private foundation that raises money for the school," The Associated Press reports.

The Charleston Gazette also reports on the legislative audit that found "other serious problems with the Mercer County school's accounting practices, including missing receipts and a lack of internal controls to prevent 'double-dipping.'"

"Sheila Johnson, finance chief at the college, says the school is working to fix the problems," the AP article notes.

More Session Topics Emerge from Interims

Interim legislative committees continue to endorse measures for the upcoming 60-day session, with additional draft bills expected during Tuesday's meetings.

The Associated Press reports on recommendations for the chronically ailing State Road Fund. They include combining gasoline taxes at a fixed per-gallon rate, and "creating a new fee for alternative fuel vehicles, as well as "increasing taxes on vehicle titles and indexing registration fees to inflation."

"Several Republicans on the Joint Standing Committee on Finance, which received the draft report, questioned its reliance on tax-related measures," the article also said.

The Charleston Gazette reports on a plea that lawmakers "live up to their commitment to fund the third year of a three-year pay raise package, despite the downturn in the economy."

MetroNews highlights a draft bill (audio here) that "calls for enhanced penalties of those convicted on charges of assault or battery against a worker while performing governmental or health care services." The July 2008 murder of Brenda Yeager in Cabell County helped spur the measure.

The Gazette also reports on a bill rejected by its interim study committee. Those lawmakers shot down a proposal by state Treasurer John Perdue to offer small businesses "voluntary retirement accounts similar to private-sector Individual Retirement Accounts" for their employees.

Update: Public Broadcasting focuses on proposals to hike cigarette taxes and require menus to post calorie counts, and offers audio. The News and Sentinel of Parkersburg queries lawmakers on a draft bill that would increase an insurance policy tax slightly to fund a pension-type benefit for volunteer fire fighters.

Supreme Court Cites "Dickensian squalor'' at W.Va. Hospitals

The state Supreme Court is supporting a Kanawha Circuit judge's plan to hear allegations of overcrowding at state psychiatric hospitals, The Associated Press reports.

The justices unanimously rejected a bid to block the hearing from the Department of Health and Human Resources.

In doing so, the ruling notes that the phrase "Dickensian squalor,'' used in a 1981 report on state mental health facilities remains apt, AP health care writer Tom Breen observes.

"Despite the DHHR's argument to the contrary, many of the same issues that were present in 1981'' remain present today, the article quotes the ruling as saying, adding that it specifically refers to the Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital in Huntington.

Banking on the Stimulus Bill

The highway component of the proposed federal stimulus legislation could create more than 14,000 jobs in West Virginia, according to estimates presented to lawmakers and reported by The Associated Press.

The figure "includes 3,840 jobs that would come directly from hiring for road and bridge projects," and is based on a formula of "16 direct jobs for every $1 million received," the article said. The state's share of highway funding has been estimated at $240 million, out of an overall stimulus slice of $1.1 billion.

The $240 million would cover just a fraction of the $970 million worth of road and bridge projects that Gov. Joe Manchin identified last month. But state highway officials said any of the 139 projects on the list could launch within 180 days of receiving stimulus funds, with most ready to roll within 90 days.

The Register-Herald of Beckley also reports on the jobs estimate, while MetroNews has an item on the funding (and audio).

The Intelligencer of Wheeling, meanwhile, focuses on a different slice of the stimulus pie.

"The West Virginia School Building Authority will deny about two-thirds of the funding requests it received this year unless federal economic stimulus dollars make their way to the agency's coffers," that article said.

09 February 2009

Topics Piling Up For 2009 Session

The final monthly legislative interim meetings that precede the 60-day regular session are usually marked by a raft of draft bills endorsed by the study committees.

One would change West Virginia's "certificate of need process, by which the state regulates health care operations ranging from surgical procedures to capital expenditure," The Associated Press reports. "The draft would make it easier for state hospitals to open operations in neighboring states and exempt some smaller clinics from the process if they meet certain criteria."

AP also reports on a draft bill that would hike insurance premium surcharges paid by most West Virginians a fraction of a percent, "to help fund a pension-type benefit for volunteer firefighters." The Register-Herald has an item as well.

The Beckley paper separately notes the stalled status of a bill sought by landowners approached by oil and gas companies for what lies beneath. "One major provision would not only mandate a 15-day notice to a landowner but also require a 30-day waiting period before any land is disturbed for a drilling operation," that article said. "Drillers who own the mineral rights would be required to explain in full detail the scope of their planned operations and post a $5,000 bond per well to cover the costs of damages."

MetroNews reports on a measure that would "require fast food companies to display the calorie intake for food items on their menus." The item also has audio of Sen. Dan Foster, D-Kanawha and a physician, explaining the proposed bill.

The Journal of Martinsburg reports on a recent Chamber of Commerce luncheon for Eastern Panhandle lawmakers. "
Most of it focused on legislators' concerns about the state's increasingly ailing economy and what can be done to help get it back on track," the newspaper reports.

And the Charleston Daily Mail sets the stage for Gov. Joe Manchin's fifth State of the State address, slated for Wednesday after the 79th Legislature gavels in for its regular session.

Gambling in West Virginia: Video Raffles

The Legislature may be called upon to revisit state gambling laws, in the wake of a Tax Department crackdown on "charitable raffle ticket dispenser machines," The Associated Press reports.

Harrison County's prosecutor targeted 144 of the devices in a raid on a Clarksburg bingo hall. Tax officials have since fined the Elks lodge responsible for the machines $100,000 and moved to revoke their charitable gaming licenses.

Officials have also gone after the licenses of a Berkeley County group that's had 100 machines, fining it $50,000. But the prosecutor there believes the state's relevant laws and regulations are confusing and outdated.

"Video poker parlors have become big business," the AP article said, and "the $189.6 million netted in the budget year ending June 30, 2008 reflects an 8.3 percent increase over the prior year."

Raffle and bingo games, West Virginia's dominant gambling venues until the lottery began in 1986, has seen a notable drop in revenues since the arrival of "limited" video lottery. But Tax Department figures suggest they still gross more than $100 million annually statewide.