26 February 2009

Byrd Throws Flag on Obama White House Move

President Barack Obama has gotten an earful from the longest-serving senator in U.S. history, Politico reports.

Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., wrote the president Wednesday and "complained about Obama’s decision to create White House offices on health reform, urban affairs policy, and energy and climate change," the article said, adding that while "Byrd repeatedly clashed with the Bush administration" over such issues, "it's rare for Byrd to criticize a president in his own party.

Politico also writes that "Byrd is a stern constitutional scholar who has always stood up for the legislative branch in its role in checking the power of the White House. Byrd no longer holds the powerful Appropriations chairmanship, so his criticism does not carry as much weight these days."

They Voted For You: Federal Spending

All three West Virginia U.S. House members voted for "a $410 billion measure Wednesday that boosted domestic programs, bristled with earmarks and chipped away at policies left behind by the Bush administration," The Associated Press reports.

Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st; Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd; and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, were part of the 245-178 majority that passed the Omnibus Appropriations Act.

Capito was among just 16 GOP members to support the legislation. Other Republicans "assailed the measure as too costly -- particularly on the heels of a $787 billion stimulus bill that President Barack Obama signed last week," AP reports. "The bill is intended to allow smooth functioning of the government through the Sept. 30 end of the fiscal year. The Senate has yet to vote on its version."

Legislature 2009: Day 16

  • The House and Senate education committees are jointly reviewing Gov. Joe Manchin's proposal for extending the annual school calendar, and The Associated Press is there.
  • "West Virginia drivers again face the possibility of fines for using cell phones on the road," The Charleston Gazette reports.
  • The Charleston Daily Mail highlights a bill "that would require a jobs impact study for certain legislation upon request by select government leaders." MetroNews also has an item.
  • Some senators are questioning "whether industrial facilities should be given more leeway in reporting accidents," under Manchin's bill on the topic, Public Broadcasting reports (with audio).
  • The oil and natural gas industry, meanwhile, tells AP that they have issues with the governor's proposed changes to severance taxes and credits on their wells.
  • The Register-Herald of Beckley observes that "a renewed effort is afoot in the state Senate to hand landowners more say-so when gas and oil firms come calling to drill their property."
  • AP also previews a daylong presence at the Capitol planned by retired public employees seeking "a cost of living allowance, a $20,000 tax break for retired public workers' pensions and other goals."
  • The Senate Finance Committee has been told that "West Virginia Public Broadcasting is feeling the pinch of the economic downturn," having lost several key sponsorships and in danger of further cuts, The Gazette reports.

Legislators Reading from the Same Page. Literally.

As the House of Delegates and Senate usually hold simultaneous floor sessions each day, it's not easy to know what's going on in both at the same time. The exception is for those lucky few individuals with audio squawk boxes connected to the sound system of each chamber.

So it was not obvious Wednesday when a member of each body stood to praise the oil and natural gas industry, by delivering identical floor speeches.

But Public Broadcasting caught the peculiarity, which coincided with the start of the industry's two-day annual conference in Charleston.

The lawmakers who appeared to have relied on the same speechwriter were Senate Finance Chairman Walt Helmick, D-Pocahontas, and the new House Majority Leader Brent Boggs, D-Braxton.

Public Broadcasting has audio as well as video.

W.Va. Moving to Embrace Stimulus Dollars

Details from West Virginia's plans for spending funds from the massive federal stimulus bill continue to emerge, as lawmakers start scrutinizing Gov. Joe Manchin's approach, The Associated Press reports.

Among other developments, a House oversight committee quizzed highway officials on the rationale behind the roster of more than 100 road and bridge projects that the administration wants to fuel with stimulus dollars.

"Highway officials expect the road and bridge projects will yield nearly 3,400 direct jobs, with an equal number of indirect jobs," AP reports, while "Division of Forestry Director Randy Dye told the committee his agency has requested $14 million from the stimulus for projects he estimates will create 500 contract jobs."

Manchin has also launched a page on his office's Web site devoted to stimulus information, mostly reflecting the spending's infrastructure component.

Other state-specific stimulus coverage comes from The Charleston Gazette, the Herald-Dispatch of Huntington, MetroNews (with audio of Manchin and a separate report on airport-related stimulus money), Public Broadcasting (with audio) and (updated) The News and Sentinel of Parkersburg.

25 February 2009

Legislature 2009: Day 15

  • The Register-Herald of Beckley weighs options for future state funding of West Virginia's myriad fairs and festivals.
  • AP highlights the extra $46 million the state must pour into public pension funds to offset heavy investment losses.
  • The Beckley newspaper also reports on one delegate's proposal for landing a coal-to-liquids plant in the state. MetroNews has a report as well, with audio.
  • Public Broadcasting relays concerns from lawmakers about recession-driven increases to residential utility bills. With video.

W.Va. GOP Eyes Closed Primary

West Virginia's Republican Party has long allowed independent and unaffiliated voters to cast ballots in its primary elections, "but now party leaders are re-examining that privilege," The Intelligencer of Wheeling reports.

"State GOP Chairman Douglas McKinney is to appoint a committee this week charged with studying whether Republican primaries in West Virginia should be closed to non-Republican voters," the article said. "The move follows a recent meeting of the West Virginia State Executive Committee, during which some members expressed that the party's policy should be changed."

Those opposed to the idea include "the state's highest-ranking Republican, U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito," the article notes.

The Associated Press also has an item.

Belated Quote of the Month

"I would think they would be tickled to death to have a job, to have a good paycheck and a benefits package."

-- Gov. Joe Manchin, commenting on public employees protesting pay and working conditions, following their Capitol rally last week, as quoted by The Charleston Gazette. The governor was asked about the remark Wednesday by MetroNews.

24 February 2009

Legislature 2009: Day 14

  • Public Broadcasting (audio here) reports that "a bill to provide payments to volunteer firefighters faces an uncertain future, even after the deaths of two volunteer firefighters in the line of duty."
  • The Charleston Daily Mail highlights a bill expected to pass this week "that would establish the Silver Alert system in West Virginia. The system would be used to track adults with Alzheimer's disease and other cognitive impairments if they wander off and wind up missing."
  • Several lawmakers have proposed exempting firearms and ammunition from the state sales tax throughout each November, The Register-Herald of Beckley reports.
  • Public Broadcasting reports on efforts by officials in the once-booming Eastern Panhandle officials to compete with more down-trodden areas of the state for road funding. With audio.
  • Both Public Broadcasting and The Register-Herald focus on a proposal to hike the state's cigaress tax by 65 cent, with the latter citing supporters who say the increase would put West Virginia’s rate on par with the national average and "yield between $100 million and $110 million the first year."
  • MetroNews reports on a bill passed Monday by the House that would provide a way for regional jail inmates to get out of jail early, while Public Broadcasting spoke to the GOP freshman who was the bill's sole opponent. With video.

Manchin Debuts $215m List for Stimulus Road, Bridge Funds (Updated)

Gov. Joe Manchin has begun showing legislators the state's pared-down, 109-item list that he plans to fund with federal stimulus dollars allotted for road and bridge projects, The Associated Press reports.

The value of the projects total $215 million, which is divided somewhat evenly among West Virginia's three congressional districts. Projects to expand sections of the state's corridor system form the largest portion of the spending. Others would add truck climbing lanes, pave dozens of stretches of state roads and paint, clean, reinforce or replace numerous bridges.

The list also includes $2 million grant programs, one for each congressional district. The list indicates that all of the projects are slated to advertise for bids by late May, with some ready to go out as early as this week.

AP also offers a detailed list of the road-related projects.

Manchin told AP last week that "I did not hand-pick one inch of road," adding that "Nobody has said, politically, 'do this road or that road,' though I'm sure people are speculating otherwise...I'm hoping people will let the professionals do what they do.''

Lawmakers earlier told the Charleston Daily Mail that they "are working quickly to become experts into how the funds can be used, what is required and who can benefit."

Legislature 2009: Health Care

"While other states are looking to cut back their Medicaid programs," The Associated Press reports, "West Virginia is doing the opposite, although crucial details like cost are proving elusive."

The AP's Tom Breen explains that Gov. Joe Manchin has proposed allowing working adults "earning up to 50 percent of the federal poverty limit - which is $10,830 for individuals - to qualify for Medicaid, with an eye toward expanding that percentage, perhaps to as much as 100 percent."

West Virginia has one of the nation's toughest eligibility standards for adults without children to enroll in Medicaid, the state-federal health coverage program for the poor and disabled.

Health and Human Resources Secretary Martha Walker discussed the governor's proposal while outlining her department's proposed budget to the House Finance Committee on Monday. "But the cost, how many adults would be newly eligible and what kind of benefits they may receive are still being determined," Breen notes.

Walker also said that she plans to use the federal stimulus bill's Medicaid funds "for one-time expenses, rather than creating new programs or expanding old programs that will leave funding gaps once the stimulus money dries up," AP reports.

Federal officials announced later that day that the initial batch of those funds -- including $76.4 million for West Virginia -- would roll out Wednesday.

The Charleston Gazette also covered the DHHR budget hearing, while AP reports separately that nationally, "health-care costs will top $8,000 per person this year, consuming an ever-bigger slice of a shrinking economic pie."

Bedtime for Bonzo

As chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-3rd, has called for action on the proposed Captive Primate Safety Act following the brutal mauling of a woman by a pet chimpanzee in Connecticut.

As both CNN and Politico report, Rahall "warned that primates are too dangerous to be kept as pets."

“Images of Curious George and Koko may lead us to believe that these creatures are cuddly and harmless, but last week’s tragedy and other similar attacks stand as evidence that this is not the case, that they are in fact wild animals, and they simply must not be kept as pets,” Rahall said in a statement.

Douglass Taken to Hospital

The Associated Press reports that longtime state Agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglass was taken to a Charleston hospital Monday with low blood pressure.

An operator at Charleston Area Medical Center's Memorial Division said "Douglass remained under evaluation Monday evening," the article said.

Douglass, who turned 82 on Sunday, is serving his 11th term at the ag post.

MetroNews also has an item, as does WSAZ-TV.

Quote of the Day

"(I) listened as much as a wife is going to listen to her husband... Policy-wise, the buck stops with me."

-- U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, when quizzed by USA Today as "one of two dozen members of Congress with substantial financial ties to the banks and other companies getting a piece of the $700 billion financial rescue package."

Married to a Citigroup executive, Capito "voted against the rescue package and to block release of its second half," the article notes.

23 February 2009

Legislature 2009: Day 13

  • Public Broadcasting examines Gov. Joe Manchin's "25% by 2025" proposal for alternative and renewable energy, and fields reactions. With audio.
  • MetroNews, meanwhile, focuses on how the governor's bill could attract wood-fired power plants.
  • The deaths of two volunteer firefighters last week in Nicholas County has raised the profile of a pending measure to fund a pension-type benefit for such personnel, Public Broadcasting reports (audio here).
  • MetroNews also delves into Manchin's proposal targeting under-performing third and eighth graders. With audio.
  • The Herald-Dispatch of Huntington highlights several measures introduced so far this session.
  • Retired public employees plan to rally Thursday at the Capitol, to call for "increased PEIA premiums, the need for a cost of living allowance" and a $20,000 state tax exemption for their pensions, the Charleston Daily Mail reports.

Sizing Up the Stimulus, II (Updated)

West Virginia could see nearly $1.8 billion from the federal stimulus bill over the next several years, The Associated Press reports, citing the latest batch of estimates.

"The spending covers an array of areas among several broad categories," the article said. "$671 million for health care and safety net type services; $643 for education and work force training; $323 million for roads and other infrastructure; $71 million for energy-related efforts; and $31 million for public safety."

AP also offers a more detailed breakdown of the funding, and notes that "the amount reflects direct funding as well as grants and money that hinges on state matching dollars or policy changes in such areas as unemployment compensation."

Update: MetroNews talks to Manchin Commerce Secretary Kelly Goes and House Finance Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo, about the stimulus estimates.

Update II: the Charleston Daily Mail scrutinizes the stimulus job estimates, while Stateline.org has a photo of Gov. Joe Manchin leaving Monday's White House meeting on the legislation.

22 February 2009

Bonus Quote of the Weekend

"I think people will read though that and understand that it's political posturing and you're playing with people's lives, and that's a very, very dangerous game."

-- Gov. Joe Manchin, again commenting on the stimulus bill during the National Governors Association meeting, this time to The Washington Post. Manchin was responding after several of his GOP counterparts said they may reject some of the incoming federal funds.