06 March 2009

W.Va. Budget Worries Persist

The Associated Press reports that "as West Virginia faces the prospect of shrinking revenues, Gov. Joe Manchin and lawmakers said Thursday that they want to avoid plugging any budget gaps with federal stimulus dollars."

But some lawmakers add that "the stimulus money could help with any one-time spending proposed in the budget bill," the article said.

With the economy faltering, the Legislature expects Manchin to revise his 2009-2010 revenue estimate downward, a rare move that would likely trigger cuts to the budget he proposed at the start of the session.

Manchin also talked about the tightening fiscal times to the editorial board of the Herald-Dispatch, the Huntington newspaper reports.

"To keep state costs down, Manchin said, he's asked each of his agency heads to validate their programs," the article said. "If the agency cannot justify the program or determine a way to make it more effective, Manchin said the program will be eliminated."

The Charleston Gazette noted earlier that Manchin has canceled this session's Legislative Black-tie Reception and Dance, citing economic conditions.

They Voted For You: Foreclosures & Bankruptcy

U.S. Reps. Alan Mollohan, D-1st, and Nick Rahall, D-3rd, helped the House pass the Helping Families Save Their Homes Act of 2009.

Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, voted against the measure in the 234-191 roll call, joined by all but seven of the GOP members present.

The bill would "give debt-strapped homeowners a chance to lower their mortgage payments through bankruptcy courts," The Associated Press reports, while noting that "foreclosures and past-due home loans hit a record 5.4 million last year."

"Supporters regard the threat of a mortgage modification in bankruptcy as a crucial tool to prod banks to negotiate with homeowners for more affordable terms," the article said. "Critics argue the measure will create a flood of bankruptcy filings that ultimately will drive up mortgage rates and further destabilize the battered housing market."

AP also reports that this part of the Obama administration's housing rescue plan "is facing a much tougher road in the Senate amid the same industry opposition and reservations from moderate Democrats that nearly derailed it in the House."

05 March 2009

Legislature 2009: Day 23

  • County health officials sound off to the Charleston Daily Mail about "a bill that would require the county commission's approval on pending smoking bans."
  • The Gazette catches the details from the first budget presented by new Secretary of State Natalie Tennant, who said "her office needs about $1.2 million to replace about 38 Internet-based computer programs that can no longer be upgraded."
  • Tennant also had a live online chat Thursday with The Gazette, which offers a transcript.
  • The state Bureau of Senior Services tells Public Broadcasting "they will not ask the Legislature for increased funding this year, given worsening economic conditions," but "that’s not good news for senior centers which are struggling to maintain vital services for a growing number of elderly shut-ins." With audio and video.

Welfare Drug Testing Bill Still a No-Show (Updated)

Despite reports to the contrary, the much-ballyhooed and sometimes derided proposal to test "welfare" recipients for drugs has not yet reached the Legislature.

The long-promised measure from Delegate Craig Blair was absent among the bills introduced Thursday in the House of Delegates.

The Berkeley County Republican has scheduled an afternoon press conference to unveil its details, suggesting the legislation could officially emerge as early as Friday. (Update: More likely next week, Blair told reporters at his press event.)

(Some have reported that the still-missing measure had been introduced as far back as the first full week of the session.)

04 March 2009

Quote of the Day

"Your latest legislative proposal is such staggering nonsense, I was surprised the members of your own party did not laugh you out of the House of Delegates."

-- Delegate Sally Susman, D-Raleigh, in an open letter to Delegate Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, regarding his welfare drug testing proposal.

Legislature 2009: Day 22

  • The Associated Press reports on the opening salvoes from lawmakers seeking to improve health care in West Virginia: one bill that would more than double the cigarette tax, and another to "require chain restaurants to post calorie counts in places where diners can easily see the information."
  • Not all legislators have given up on the quest for pay raises for teachers and other public employees, the Daily Mail reports.
  • Wood County's delegation is divided over a bill one of them introduced to "make it illegal for insurance companies to refuse or cancel a policy or increase a premium based on credit scores," the News and Sentinel of Parkersburg reports.
  • The Daily Mail highlights one lawmaker's concern that stores are illegally selling individual cigarettes.

Tracking West Virginia's Stimulus Share

West Virginia has received its $210 million slice of the federal stimulus pie carved out for road and bridge projects, The Associated Press reports, citing releases from the state's congressional delegation.

But the list of 100+ projects slated to reap those funds, unveiled by Gov. Joe Manchin last week, is already being second-guessed by lawmakers, the Bluefield Daily-Telegraph reports.

Senate Majority Leader Truman Chafin, D-Mingo, is leading the charge to strip $32 million now destined for Raleigh County's East Beckley Bypas and instead repair the West Virginia Turnpike with that money, the article said.

Area lawmakers also fault the list for failing
to include projects benefitting the King Coal Highway or the Coalfields Expressway, the newspaper reports.

The Register-Herald of Beckley, meanwhile, quotes a Federal Highways Administration officials to report that West Virginia could "dip deeper into the Obama stimulus package and pull out as much as $100 million extra in highway cash."

While adding that a more realistic range would be between $30 million and $40 million, the article cites "
a $1.5 billion account set aside for discretionary road upkeep and construction" that the state could tap.

Update: Putnam County officials "
are upset they didn't get any federal stimulus money for road construction," The Charleston Gazette reports.

Economy May Force Manchin to Revise Budget

In the wake of February's revenue shortfall eclipsing the remaining "surplus" and sliding West Virginia's ledger into the red, Gov. Joe Manchin could revisit the budget he's proposed to the Legislature for the coming fiscal year, The Associated Press reports.

"Based on what we're seeing nationally, and with the economy worsening, we would rather jump ahead of this than wait until we're behind," Manchin spokesman Matt Turner told AP.

Lawmakers expect the governor to reduce the proposed budget's revenue projections within two weeks, according to the article, which also cites other spots of bad financial news for the Mountain State:

* "After 16 years of growth, its lottery expects sales and proceeds to decline over the next two budget years. The key revenue source, which distributed $657 million to state agencies and county and local governments last fiscal year, has been buffeted both by competing venues in Pennsylvania and the recession."

* "West Virginia's investment pool, meanwhile, ended months of staggering losses in December, only to see those gains evaporate in January."

03 March 2009

SCOTUS Hears Blankenship-Benjamin Case (Updated)

Following " lively arguments," The Associated Press reports that the U.S. Supreme Court "appears to be willing to say that elected judges must step aside from cases in which there would be at least an appearance of bias if they took part."

"The court's four liberal justices and the conservative-leaning Anthony Kennedy all expressed support for a ruling that the Constitution's guarantee of a fair trial could require judges not to participate in a case in which there was a likelihood of bias," the article said.

AP earlier previewed the appeal that emerged from West Virginia as did several national media outlets, underscoring widespread interest in the case.

"Blankenship spent at least $3 million to help Republican Brent Benjamin, a little-known lawyer from Charleston, defeat the incumbent Democrat," AP explained. "Benjamin later helped form the 3-2 majority that overturned a judgment, now valued at $82.7 million with interest, against Blankenship's Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy Co."

Before Tuesday's hearing, the U.S. justices were greeted with editorials in The Washington Post, The New York Times and USA Today opining on the case.

The court offers a docket for the case, while The Brennan Center for Justice, The American Bar Association, and SCOTUS-Wiki have all posted the key filings online.

Update: The Charleston Gazette reports on the vote tally compiled by the Supreme Court's press office in defense of Benjamin, finding that "in cases decided by a single vote by the five-justice court, Benjamin sided with Massey most of the time."

The Gazette also expounds on the list, and cites Massey-related votes it does not include, on its new blog.

Update II: A transcript of Tuesday's arguments have been posted. Link provided via The Gazette.

Legislature 2009: Day 21

  • The state Senate has voted to lower the bar for consolidating local government services. As The Associated Press reports, the measure passed Monday "would allow a county with at least 150,000 residents and a major city to opt for metro government with a simple majority rather than the 55 percent of voters now required." It now heads to the House.
  • Public Broadcasting talks to one of the "metro government" bill's co-sponsors while covering the Senate vote.
  • AP also reports on the Senate's changes to Manchin's school calendar proposal. A subcommittee there opted to pursue the governor's 180-day goal "by requiring counties to finish the first 90 days by Dec. 23 and by allowing schools to schedule classes on days in February, April and June set aside for teacher development," the article said.
  • MetroNews also has an item on the amended school calendar bill, with audio.
  • Another Manchin education proposal, an "initiative to develop after-school or summer programs for students struggling with basic skills in grades 3 and 8," gets an advance look from the Charleston Daily Mail.
  • The Register-Herald of Beckley previews Manchin's proposal to "to expand the use of coal and lower the amount of carbon that escapes into the air," by allowing "permits for such projects, setting regulations to monitor sequestration and clearly identifying just who owns the sites where carbon is stashed."
  • The Daily Mail profiles an unusual item on the resume of Delegate Jeff Eldridge, D-Lincoln: "underground fight club."
  • Public Broadcasting (with audio and video) notes the surprise of some lawmakers that they previously approved a "fusion center" for coordinating and relaying anti-terrorism intelligence.

West Virginia Slips into the Red

West Virginia state government took in $45.5 million less in general revenue than expected last month, erasing what had been a slight surplus and leaving it $17.3 million short for the fiscal year, The Associated Press reports.

Nearly every other state has already wrestled with budget deficits this year. But February ending on a weekend likely blunted collections, a spokesman for Gov. Joe Manchin told AP.

"The state received $28 million from taxes on Monday, or $22 million more than estimated," the article said. "Matt Turner said that suggests that state revenues remain in the black by about $5 million. Monday's collections will count toward March's total."

But the administration also continues to see the ongoing recession reflected in below-estimate revenues from sales, use and income taxes, AP reports.

02 March 2009

West Virginia Workers Make Lou Dobbs

The recent rally at the Legislature by state public employees caught the attention of CNN's Lou Dobbs, with his show reporting (in a 3:19 video segment) on "state workers in West Virginia who are barely paid enough to make ends meet."

Not Quite Ready for Prime Time

It's been debated on the House floor, touted on talk radio, endorsed by the state Republican Party, the exclusive subject of a new Web site, and has even been reported as having been introduced, but "a GOP delegate's attention-grabbing drug testing bill is everywhere but before the Legislature," The Associated Press reports.

"Berkeley County lawmaker Craig Blair has been promising for over a week to introduce a bill requiring drug testing for people who receive food stamps, unemployment or 'welfare,' which could refer to several federal programs," AP's Tom Breen explains.

The article also said that "in a session devoted largely to fiscal policy, with little in the way of major initiatives or new proposals, Blair's idea is stealing the spotlight."

But the available draft "doesn't address cost, which will be one of the factors lawmakers weigh in looking at the proposal," while "the stiffest criticism of the idea so far has come from one of Blair's fellow Republicans: Randolph County Sen. Clark Barnes," Breen notes.

(Updated: The Web site had included an online poll, which asked visitors to choose between:

A. Yes! Let's get people off drugs and back to work!
B. I'm too stoned to answer right now.
The latter answer was prevailing before the poll's wording was changed Thursday morning.)

U.S. Justices Prepare to Hear Blankenship-Benjamin Case

The Associated Press sets the stage for Tuesday's (corrected) U.S. Supreme Court hearing of an appeal that hinges on Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship's multimillion-dollar role in West Virginia's 2004 state Supreme Court election.

"Blankenship spent at least $3 million to help Republican Brent Benjamin, a little-known lawyer from Charleston, defeat the incumbent Democrat," AP explains. "Benjamin later helped form the 3-2 majority that overturned a judgment, now valued at $82.7 million with interest, against Blankenship's Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy Co."

But while "legal ethics experts have faulted Benjamin for failing to remove himself from the case," the article continues, "some also question whether the U.S. justices can craft a ruling that makes clear when campaign support requires a judge to step aside."

Benjamin responded to elements of the pending argument last year, in a 57-page opinion concurring with the reversal of the verdict won by Harman Mining and its president, Hugh Caperton.

AP also notes the numerous "friend of the court" briefs filed in the case, mostly in support of Harman and Caperton, with "an eclectic array of groups — from Wal-Mart to government watchdog Common Cause and dozens of former jurists — all decrying the specter of bias conjured by Blankenship's spending."

The case is considered one of the more remarkable of the term, and has attracted an array of preview coverage from the likes of:

The U.S. Supreme Court's official docket for the case is here. Resource pages for the case, with links to many of the filings, are hosted by:
Update: Public Broadcasting also has a report, with audio. The Charleston Daily Mail, meanwhile focuses on Benjamin's Massey-related voting record (citing information that AP requested last week, but was told was unavailable or did not exist.)

Capito and the Cramdown

With Congress weighing an Obama administration proposal "to change existing bankruptcy laws in an attempt to cut down on the number of foreclosures," The Journal of Martinsburg counts Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-2nd, among those questioning the measure.

Capito "and three other ranking House members expressed their concerns about the measure in a recent letter to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner," the article said. "Among other things, lawmakers said in the letter that the bill could have long-term implications for taxpayers, who might be left with sizable liabilities if federal loan programs through the Federal Housing Administration, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and Department of Veterans Affairs are not excluded from the measure."

A key sticking point is the plan's "cramdown" mechanism, which "would change laws relating to Chapter 13 bankruptcy filings and enable courts to force a loan's principal to be decreased," the Martinsburg newspaper explains.

Supporters cite the rising tide of foreclosures. "Recent figures indicate that there are nearly 9,000 foreclosures per day nationwide. In Jefferson County alone, the number of reported trustee sales has increased from 73 in 2005 to 672 in 2008," The Journal reports. "In Berkeley County, the number of reported trustee sales has increased from 62 in 2005 to 504 in 2008."

The Charleston Gazette presents a statewide perspective.

"Between 1991 and 2002, West Virginians were less likely than the average American to be more than one month late on their mortgage payments," that article said. "But now, West Virginia, like most states, is facing rising number of delinquencies at foreclosure stage. "

Specifically, the Charleston newspaper's research found that "West Virginia's three-month delinquencies were the 14th highest in the nation," and "the state had the nation's seventh highest prime mortgage delinquency rate and the seventh highest subprime delinquency rate."

The Gazette also provides graphics to illustrate subprime mortgages and delinquency rates.

The Los Angeles Times also has coverage, and notes the letter co-signed by Capito. The Obama administration, meanwhile, offers several explanatory links.

01 March 2009

Quote of the Weekend

"Are they still running that s––– down south?.. Well, I tell you what, if you see [the organizer], kill the son of a bitch."

-- Attributed by Newsweek to Gov. Joe Manchin, regarding the West Virginia Road Kill Cook-Off. Manchin's office has questioned the accuracy of the quote in the "Web exclusive," which has spurred mention by WSAZ-TV, in The Charleston Gazette and on MetroNews (which spoke to the aforementioned cook-off organizer.)

Getting Schooled in West Virginia

Gov. Joe Manchin believes West Virginia's public schools can reach the elusive mandate of 175 classroom days by revising when their annual calendar begins and ends. But as The Associated Press reports, lawmakers and others are skeptical.

AP's Tom Breen covered last week's joint House-Senate hearing at which legislators "wondered out loud whether there isn’t already enough flexibility in the calendar — in the form of vacation weeks that could be canceled in a pinch."

"About 52 of 55 counties are likely to fall short of the 180 required school days this year, mostly thanks to an unusually harsh winter," Breen explains. "State law requires students to be in class for 175 days, with five days set aside for teacher development and also for some student tutoring."

The Charleston Gazette also reported on the legislative meeting, while The Register-Herald of Beckley has an item on the Manchin bill.